I hunt translators

So how does one little country get to have so much talent for crime fiction, film, and music? (Banking, not so much . . .)

Sarah Weinman’s useful smatterings brought me to this review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir of a delicious-sounding Icelandic television series, based on a novel that has not been translated into English.

I Hunt Men (Icelandic title: Mannaveidar), directed by Björn B. Björnsson, follows two detectives as they attempt to track down a serial killer who has a penchant for murdering goose hunters. The four-episode murder mystery series (170 min.) is based on the popular novel Daybreak by Icelandic crime-writer Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and was adapted for the screen by Sveinbjörn I. Baldvinsson.

At the center of I Hunt Men is a staple to the TV and film crime genre: the classically mismatched police partners. Much to his chagrin, the straight-laced and by-the-book detective Hinrik (played by Gísli Örn Gardarsson), is paired up with Gunnar, a disheveled looking detective who speaks his mind and gets the job done.

The partner match-up, or rather mismatch, may be predictable, but Ólafur Darri Ólafsson gives a great performance as Gunnar and seems to play the part with ease. As a result, Gunnar comes across as genuine, unapologetic and very likable.

Gunnar’s insatiable appetite for junk-food snacks and his permanently untucked (and crumb-laden) shirt contrasts Hinrik’s tailored black coats, fitted sweaters, and his reserved, often overly dramatic, demeanor. . . .

In terms of the look of the series, among the most visually stunning moments of the episodes are the juxtapositions of the wide-angle and aerial shots of both nature and cityscapes. The aerial shots of the city’s apartment buildings lined up row after row reveal hidden courtyards only fully visible from the air.

Reykjavík is seen in a new light, even in the dark of night. The yellow glow of the city lights against the black night sky fits well with the tone of the episodes.

Shots taken from the air outside of the city showcase the winding black highway cutting its way through the vivid orange, brown and green moss-covered landscape that stretches out to the horizon. Images like these play like tourism advertisements for Iceland.
The great outdoors even finds its way into many of the interior scenes as well. The camera is cleverly set up to capture the view from the oversized windows of most of the apartments ensuring that a mountain or ocean-view is always visible in one way or another. . . .

Because the series first aired in March of 2008—before the collapse of the Icelandic banking industry—there are a few instances that hit on strikingly relevant topics in the aftermath of the recent economic freefall in Iceland. One such example appears in the character of the wealthy banker who exudes haughtiness and under questioning behaves as slippery as his slicked back hair.

Gunnar’s defense for his “unconventional” interviewing tactics ring true for many in Iceland these days; “Should I talk to him differently just because he lives in a tower and makes more in a month than we do in a year?” Today this line so perfectly hits the mark that it’s enough to induce a wince from an Icelandic viewer.

Bits and Pieces

Profmike reads Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis and pronounces it well worth the read. “What Jo Nesbo has also done – very cleverly, in my opinion  – is to introduce a larger, overarching narrative that spans across the series of Harry Hole novels. . . . This is writing that is far more complex that it at first seems, extremely readable, combining old-fashioned structures and the steady hand of the popular novelist with more contemporary perspectives and sensibilities.”

Becky, who reads A Book a Week, thinks Arnaldur Indridason has scored a hit. “I always like mysteries that are about something else besides the mystery. The Draining Lake is about a lot more than just who is the dead guy at the bottom of the lake. That’s why I think it’s the best Indriðason book I’ve read. He’s really hitting his stride as a mystery craftsman and as a novelist.”

Mark Rose at Bookasm thinks Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead works very well and is a good example of the region’s crime fiction. “Some universal memes exist that seem to exemplify Scandinavian mystery fiction: They are all ineffably sad, they all seem to focus on domestic mysteries with crime close to home, there is a ton of self-contemplative navel gazing, and they’re not afraid to use less-than-glamorous characters as our main focal points.” (Hmm . . . one could also argue that Scandinavian mysteries are as likely to examine social issues as they are domestic crimes – if one can generalize at all. I wouldn’t say, for example, that Helene Tursten or Hakan Nesser write sad books . . .)

And finally . . . do you Facebook? Then join the new group, Fans of Scandinavian Crime Novels. And if you simply want to keep up with crime fiction from all over, check out the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at FriendFeed – thanks owed to Maxine Clarke for setting it up.

Ali on Arnaldur Indridason

There’s a warm appreciation of the work of Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason over at The Rap Sheet. Actually, Ali Karim is to crime fiction criticism as Vindaloo is to Indian cuisine. He isn’t just warm, he’s hot! hot! hot!

For me, [Boucercon 2008] was a magical moment to speak with a novelist whose wonderfully melancholic fiction has haunted me over the last few years–ever since that CWA awards ceremony, in fact. Right after that event, I bought Indridason’s first English-translated novel, Jar City (aka Tainted Blood), to find out what all the fuss was about. It turned out to be one of the greatest police procedurals I’ve ever read. Jar City introduces a captivating trio of investigators, led by Reykjavik Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson but also featuring criminology graduate Sigurdur Óli and policewoman Elínborg. In Jar City, those three go hunting for the murderer of an old man named Holberg. But the yarn is not as simple as that, because Holberg was an evil man, with a legacy of harming many people within his insular community. Jar City, I should note in passing, is also one of the saddest and bleakest novels I’ve ever read.

Indridason’s subsequent works–including Arctic Chill (2008), The Draining Lake (2007), and Voices (2006)–have been quite brilliant, too. But like my first kiss, I still recall Jar City most vividly and fondly. It is one of the few books that actually made me cry.

Ali also has done us the favor of pointing out an article on Icelandic crime fiction in the Iceland Review – some of which is available online. It notes that seven of ten most circulated books at the Icelandic national library are by Arnaldur Indridason.

A Roundup of Reviews

Tom Nolan of The Wall Street Journal thinks highly of Arndaldur Indridason’s The Draining Lake, “a book as subtle and moving as it is suspenseful.” But his opening reminds me of how jarring it is to have this series tagged as “”Reykjavik Thrillers.” Though I find the books exhileratingly good, it seems silly to classify them as thrillers, given their sublte structure, well-developed characters, and unapologetic realism.

Peter Rozovsky considers the same book, commenting on the way the Icelandic setting plays into the book, as well as the propensity of Scandinavian crime fiction writers to delve into the past for their mysteries.

Uriah, meanwhile, praises the lasting power of Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series, give a thumb’s up to Paradise by Liza Marklund. And he notes a peculiarity of one of her photoshopped covers.

And catching up belatedly with posts at International Noir Fiction, Glen Harper reviews Henning Mankell’s collection of short stories, The Pyramid, “a fitting sequel or prequel, depending on whether you think of it as the first or last of the series.”

Uriah on Arctic Chill

Arnaldur Indridason gets another nod over at Crime Scraps – in a review that includes some commentary on the current economic meltdown that has destroyed Iceland’s go-go financial markets.

It reminds me that, two years ago when I spoke to the author, he commented that until recently Iceland was a very poor country. The new wealth was causing some upheaval in the culture, with more urbanization and the risk that the Icelandic language and traditions might get diluted as the island nation’s isolation ended. (Erlendur’s preference for traditional Icelandic cuisine and irritation when the language is misused is a kind of protest against change.) When I asked Arnaldur what accounted for the new wealth, he said it was had to do with banking, but that nobody really knew what it was all about or how it made so much money. Apparently neither did the bankers!

Uriah comments –

If Iceland’s banking system and financiers have proved unreliable, that cannot be said for their crime writers.

I have just finished reading Arnaldur Indridason’s  police procedural Arctic Chill in which Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg investigate the death of a young Thai-Icelandic boy, whose Thai half brother has gone missing.

This superb novel gives us an account of the investigation while identifying the tensions that exist  between new immigrants from Asia and the small Icelandic indigenous population. Many of the Icelanders feel that their culture will be destroyed by the incomers who themselves find it hard to cope with the language and the harsh weather. Other issues are introduced with the possible presence in the vicinity of a paedophile, marital infidelity,  and the death of Erlendur’s old boss Marion Briem. . . .

This is crime fiction at its best . . .

Oh, go ahead – read the whole thing. And then place your order for Arctic Chill. I’m particularly interested in comparing its themes with those in Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride, which I’m finally reading.

the saga continues

Doug Johnstone of the Times interviews Arnaldur Indridason as Arctic Chill hits the stores and as the Icelandic film version of Jar City is released in the UK. Interestingly, Arndaldur says there was no crime fiction tradition in Iceland until his massively popular series was published, and that the genre was considered trashy. And yet he feels his writing is part of Iceland’s most celebrated literary tradition.

The Erlendur novels are certainly cinematic, but there is also a sparseness and a deadly dry sense of humour that make them distinctly Icelandic, both traits found in the most famous Icelandic literature of all. “I am heavily influenced by the Icelandic sagas,” he admits. “The sagas are huge stories of families and events, murder and mayhem, and they were written on rare cowskin so they had to be very concise. They don’t use two words when one will do, and I take my cue from that.”


Journalist and critic Michael Carlson locks onto a number of “irresistible targets” in his blog of that name. Recently he reviewed Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill, the latest of the Erlender series to be translated into English. He noticed an interesting parallel to Jar City – both books are about the isolation of Iceland and its homogenous genetic pool, and even more about the isolation between individuals, even close family members. In this book, the murder victim is a mixed-race child whose mother is a Thai woman brought to Iceland by a man who needs a wife. (Hmm…. that reminds me of Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride, another book on my enormously long to-be-read list.)

Carlson also recently reviewed John Theorin’s Echoes of the Dead at Crime Time and at his blog recounts his visit to its setting with his small son – he has family living on the island where the book is set. Evidently, the book does justice to the landscape.

I hadn’t often been there before in summer, when it is lovely, but usually in winter or thereabouts, when the ‘alvar’, the inland steppe or plain, is bleak and deserted, the way Theorin uses it to create an atmospheric setting for his slow-building suspense, a story of history and loss.

The theme is the search for a long-missing child, and just thinking about that summer made the book all that much more real to me…the Oland I know may never seem quite the same. But I recommend the book, and Oland, highly.

I owe thanks to Michael for pointing out a Danish author who was missing from my website, Anders Bodelsen –  Mange tak!

more reviews . . .

Dick Adler of the Trib is impressed by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, now that it’s finally reached the US market. In the UK, lucky Brits get to read Arnaldur Indridason’s latest Erlenedur novel, Arctic Chill, and The Telegraph recommends that they do.

Margaret Cannon of The Globe and Mail thinks Asa Larsson’s The Black Path is well worth following, but Richard Lipez of the Washington Post thinks it meanders too much.

And finally – OffMyTrolley thinks Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds is first rate.

humor and the Scandinavian mystery

Karen Meek has a review of Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye – the first in the Van Veteeren series, but the third to be translated – at Euro Crime and points out that it’s not only slightly surreal, thanks to its fictional bouillabaisse of a setting that incorporates bits of several northern European countries, but it’s also great fun. “You can dip into almost any page and a line will make you smile.”

Often Scandinavian crime fiction is characterized as being dour and gloomy, but as Peter Rozovsky pointed out in an issue of Mystery Reader’s Journal devoted to Scandinavian crime fiction, it’s not entirely without humor. And Nesser is his exhibit A.

He also cites a scene opening Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave in which a young medical student realizes that the object a baby is chewing on is a human bone. (Okay, it doesn’t seem all that funny – you had to be there.)

Also new on Euro Crime is Maxine Clarke’s review of Arnaldur’s The Draining Lake – and she picks up on the humorous interplay among the detectives, the smug Sigurd Oli and the self-absorbed Elinborg, all caught up in publishing a cook book while they investigate a murder from the past.