Iceland Noir brought big names and dark conversations to town
If you’ve ever wondered how to commit the perfect murder, yearned to bask at the feet of Sara Blædel, or to dance to Irvine Welsh’s acid house, then Iceland Noir 2023 was the place for you.
While Reykjavík’s culture-hounds bemoan the city’s dwindling selection of truly cultural festivals, one such happening has been creeping under the radar over the past decade, and has now blossomed into the most varied and exciting literary event the city has to offer.
Established in 2013 by crime writers Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson, Iceland Noir aimed to ride the mammoth Scandi-noir wave and bring the cadre of Icelandic crime writers to an international audience. Billed as a “literary festival celebrating darkness in all its forms,” the first time guest might be forgiven for expecting ghoulish authors lecturing pale-faced weirdos about the best way to hide a body. But the atmosphere of the festival is quite the opposite.
Sure, talk does turn to how to kill someone and get away with it, but the smiles and laughter are a sure sign that it’s (probably) all in jest.
The line-up this year was exceptionally star-studded, with cultural touchstones like Louise Penny, Dan Brown, Lisa Jewell, Neil Gaiman and Irvine Welsh making it an unmissable event for any 90s kid who saved up for a first printing of Sandman or marvelled at a poster of a smacked-out Ewan McGregor.
The writers were wrangled into an array of different panel discussions and events, but with over a hundred authors on the lineup, the festival organisers made sure that everyone got their moment to shine and create an atmosphere of equality that’s virtually unheard of in other festivals.
With Vinnustofa Kjarvals serving as a sort of festival hub, visitors and authors had the chance to rub elbows and talk shop over coffee or wine, before heading out again for another panel on dark deeds and murder. Split across Vinnustofa Kjarvals, Hannesarholt and Fríkirkjan; Iceland Noir has the feel of a much bigger festival, closer to something like Edinburgh Fringe. Although the festival it most reminded me of was the now-deceased music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties, which had a similarly egalitarian vibe of waiting in line for a slice of cake next to an indie icon who shaped your youth.
It’s amazing how quickly the sense of community builds as you start to recognize the faces attending different panel discussions. Iceland Noir manages to capture an air of kids returning to summer camp among those who have attended before. Repeat visitors greet old friends and catch up on each other’s lives between crime fests.
While common themes quickly emerge in the panel discussions – how the setting inspires the story, whether true crime inspires the authors and, of course, the best way to kill someone – the constant introduction of new voices (we did say there were 100+ authors attending) with interesting additions to these common themes keep festivalgoers from feeling they’d heard this take before.
Another common theme that started to emerge after the first couple of days was the sense that “it’s never too late to start.” Many of the authors started writing later in life, after retirement or after having decided to change horses mid-stream to follow their dreams of fantasising about killing ex-boyfriends in exotic locations. Because it really is never too late.
The headliners of this year’s programme certainly weren’t resting on their laurels. Irvine Welsh was pulling double-shifts, first was a conversation about his transition into crime fiction from his usual tapeworm-narrated literary fiction. Naturally, one talk ended with him waxing lyrical about the wonders of DMT.
The ever amiable Dan Brown could be seen popping up at various venues to chat with attendees.
Neil Gaiman appeared twice – once in a one-on-one-on-one conversation with the festival founders at Fríkirkjan church, which felt appropriate considering the worship he inspires in his most ardent followers; and again in a more intimate discussion with Yrsa and Sara Blædel where they started off by each sharing a secret. The audience was sworn to secrecy, but let me tell you Gaiman’s was a doozy! Yrsa proved to be an unconventional, free-wheeling moderator and the atmosphere in the small room in which the panel was held quickly felt like a chat between friends about mostly non-crime related things.
Yrsa’s chat with Pétur Guðmannsson, Iceland’s only forensic pathologist, also proved surprisingly delightful, highlighting how small a community Iceland still is and yielding such tidbits as the fact that forensic pathologists will often have a sauna at work. It makes total sense once you stop and think about it.
The importance of a good moderator is made painfully clear when you’re attending panel discussions from 10:00 to 22:00. A good moderator can lift the discussion higher, relax nervous authors and elaborate on interesting subjects or themes being touched upon. They make you excited to read the books that are being discussed.
By the same token, a bad moderator can drag things down by drawing undo attention to themselves or stifling interesting discussions and making you very aware of that dull ache in your butt while warming a church bench.
One would have expected the most controversial guest at this year’s edition to have been tarnished wunderkind A.J. Finn, who proved to be a fascinating study in denial and the subtle art of failing upwards.
Instead, the spotlight was grabbed by first-time crime co-author Hillary Clinton, who appeared at a side event in Harpa at the conclusion of the festival proper. Mrs. Clinton’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict prompted a group of Icelandic authors to publicly boycott the festival. This was unsurprising in and of itself, as public opinion in Iceland is overwhelmingly against the actions of the IDF (this includes the vast majority of the people I spoke to at the festival). But it was odd to see high-brow establishment authors choose to target the festival itself and vocally boycott an annual event they have dutifully ignored for the past 10 years.
It’s easy to see why people found Clinton’s presence objectionable, but one has to wonder if you can boycott an event that you were not invited to and had no intention of attending in the first place. If so, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I will be boycotting this year’s Oscars, The Nobel Prize award ceremony and my niece’s ballet recital.
Provided that this year’s protest didn’t bury the festival and provided they don’t decide to invite someone like Vladimir Putin or E.L. James, you can count me in for Iceland Noir 2024.
Iceland Noir was held November 15 to 18. This year’s event was sold out months in advance, so keep a close eye on IcelandNoir.com and sign up for their mailing list to be the first to know about tickets for the 2024 event.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!