From Iceland — Murder in Heaven: Nordic Noir and Icelandic Lit

Murder in Heaven: Nordic Noir and Icelandic Lit

Published November 13, 2018

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Lilja Birgisdóttir

The third Iceland Noir festival will be held this year at the Iðnó theatre on November 15th to 18th. This multi-day event is the biggest one so far, with a host of international stars such as Hugh Frasier, Val McDermid and Liz Nugent, as well as the local talent. But how did Reykjavík become if not the, then at least a capital of stories about murder?

On the face of it, Iceland does not seem like an obvious setting for crime fiction. There is on average around one and a half murders here a year, and these are rarely the result of intricate scheming. The general consensus as late as the 1990s was that as far as literature was concerned, this was one trend that would pass us by. No one would buy the idea.

Then the 2000s rolled around and the murder rate started increasing exponentially in literature if not, thankfully, in real life. Arnaldur Indriðason, the king of Icelandic crime writing, has been nestled securely at the top of the best seller charts for most of this century, his most serious competition coming from the queen of crime, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (seen above). This is merely the tip of a very large iceberg, which also includes translations of Scandi-crime writers such as Jo Nesbö and Camilla Läckberg.

The trend shows no sign of abating. During the bad old boom years, when everyone thought they were going to get miraculously rich and soon, people turned to tales of murder for recreation, perhaps to get away from the all-pervasive optimism or even in recognition that there was a dark underbelly to a seemingly perfect society that was betting everything on the banks. Then the crash came, but people still stuck to their crime writers, now because they mirrored a morally bankrupt society infested with corruption.

Something rotten, and rich

Possibly even more surprising than the locals’ love of their crime fiction is its appeal abroad. Arnaldur has sold over 13 million copies of his books, many of these to Scandi-noir loving Germans, and TV has been entering the fray with the Baltasar Kormákur produced series Trapped being one of the most expensive to be made by Icelanders so far.
Of course, no island is an island, not even Iceland. Icelandic crime partly rides on the coattails of its Scandinavian cousins. Once you have read the Swedes and Norwegians, watched the excellent Danish series such as Forbrydelsen and Broen, something set in Iceland is a logical next step for those wanting more.

“Precisely because the Nordic countries are seen as role models by many; safe, egalitarian, roughly gender-equal and physically healthy, the idea of something dark underneath becomes titillating.”

But why is Nordic crime fiction so popular? True, most of it is pretty well constructed, but why would the Scandinavians, considered as living in some of the safest countries in the world, excel at this sport rather than continentals with vastly more experience of murder?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the question. Precisely because the Nordic countries are seen as role models by many; safe, egalitarian, roughly gender-equal and physically healthy, the idea of something dark underneath becomes titillating. One famous English writer, after having detailed the murderous reigns of Richard III and Macbeth of Scotland and the brutal Wars of the Roses, still insisted there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. Murder in heaven is intriguing; murder in hell is just another day.

Returning from the grave

But how long can it all last? Arnaldur has just sold his 500,000th book domestically, that’s 1.5 per person living in the country, an unparalleled feat. But all things must pass and one day a generational shift must surely come. The Swede Henning Mankell, creator of Kurt Wallander, moved on to that great police station in the sky three years ago and the most popular Nordic crime writer of them all, Stieg Larsson, died over a decade ago. Then again, death never slowed him down. His 80 million selling Millennium trilogy was published posthumously and two more books in the series have come out in the past three years.

No, this was not written with the aid of a Ouija board, but by one David Lagercrantz, selected by the publisher to carry the mantle. Nordic noir has always prided itself on realism, despite its unreal murder rate. Larsson pushed this to the limit with the superhero-like Salander who is not only the world’s greatest hacker but also a martial arts fighter and master of disguise with a photographic memory, while her brother is a supervillain unable (literally) to feel pain. Lagercrantz dispenses with reality altogether, quoting comic book characters instead and introducing the inevitable evil twin sister, a ploy originally conceived by Stieg himself.

So, where can Nordic Noir go from there? Perhaps it has to turn meta and into self-parody, as Lagercrantz does, accidentally or not. Or maybe it has to find even more exotic locales. The Finns have also belatedly been doing well in the field, and they do have the setting. Maybe the Faroes are up next, although they only manage about one murder a decade in real life. Then again, younger writers such as Ragnar Jónasson have shown that the appetite remains undiminished, and sales-wise he has become the Crown Prince of Icelandic Crime. Others are sure to follow if Arnaldur ever falters. That might be a good long while yet, but we are sure to see a host of contenders at Iðnó this November.

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