For most Icelanders, the names Guðmundur and Geirfinnur have immediate connotations. In January and November of 1974, these two seemingly unconnected men vanished without a trace in and around Reykjavík, leading to speculation and paranoia in the community that eventually lead to a notorious murder investigation and the conviction of six people.
Last year, a documentary on this haunting case, ‘Out of Thin Air,’ was released by the BBC and Netflix. Thus, the wider world was made aware of the bizarre case, and the tragic history of the six young people whose lives were so irrevocably altered when they signed confessions to the murders, after months of solitary confinement and interrogation.
A fascination that turned into an obsession
In March, a new book on the case was released by London-based journalist Anthony Adeane—one of the documentary’s major contributors. In the book, which bears the same title as the documentary, Anthony lays out the history of the case as well as the unique societal circumstances surrounding what has been called the greatest miscarriage of justice in Icelandic history.
Anthony first became aware of the case through a BBC Radio 4 programme and was immediately fascinated. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he reminisces. “I read everything I could find about the case in English—which was very little at that point. I was mainly fascinated by how the psychology of those involved ended up being mapped by this vast, complex criminal case, but the more I dug into it the more I became drawn to the story of how the suspects and their families have persisted in their attempts to overturn a historic injustice.”
Avoiding a single narrative
After pitching the documentary to a London production company, Anthony ended up working on the film for 3 years, travelling to Iceland to gather information and interview those involved. His interviews with the suspects, investigators, and other relevant parties make up a large part of his narrative.
Getting the interview subjects to talk about the events of the much-disputed case was challenging. “I approached each interview as a learning experience,” Anthony explains. “We tried to speak to as many people as possible so that we did not make the same mistake as the investigators and get trapped in one narrative. I also made sure to ask a broad array of questions so that I could build up as many details and corroborating stories as possible. It was important to be wary of the different agendas people might have. Despite thousands of pages of court documents, there are very few facts, and so people’s prejudices can end up being the basis for their recollections.”
Paranoia and public outcry
A major strength of the book is in how Anthony sets the scene of Iceland’s society of the time, in a way that might be cumbersome within the documentary format. At the time, the mere idea of premeditated murders in Iceland seemed ridiculous, which accounts for some of the shock that the community experienced. However, one can only assume that the 70s zeitgeist—a fear of lingering modernity, and the corruption of youth—played a role in the societal backlash that the young suspects experienced.
Anthony points out that, as in other parts of the world, there was a somewhat illogical concern about drugs at the time, which was fueled by media coverage and the establishment of a specialist police drug unit. “All of this played a big role in how people responded to these kids,” Anthony says. “People thought that these kids must have done it because of the general whiff of criminality that surrounded them, due to their involvement in the Reykjavík drug scene. And once this conglomerate machine of parliament, media, police and public outcry was put into motion, there was no stopping it. It was just a matter of time before someone got ground into dust, which ended up being a vulnerable young mother and her ex-boyfriend, who the police had previous dealings with.”
The advantages of being an outsider
Stepping into an insular community like Iceland and asking questions about events that have haunted the national psyche for so long is a daunting task, but Anthony also discovered some advantage in his outsider stature.
“A lot of the people we interviewed for the documentary said that they felt more comfortable talking to people who weren’t from Iceland,” he finishes. “They knew we wouldn’t have the same prejudices or biases as people who’d been familiar with the case for decades. We always had Icelanders helping us to navigate the story, but when many people have grown up with fixed ideas about what happened, coming in as an outsider can give you a fresh perspective.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.