Nordic noir finds new home in heart of Arctic darkness
The murder may be fiction but the setting for Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland crime series is real – even the herrings – and close to his family’s heart
Ragnar Jónasson on Snowblind: “A young policeman, fresh out of police academy, moves to Siglufjordur for his first post. What I found fascinating to contemplate was the isolation a young man might experience when moving from a relatively big city like Reykjavik to this distant place in the dead of winter, having to deal with insomnia, depression, homesickness and claustrophobia, feeling that the mountains are moving in on him”
Imagine a place. It’s pretty far away, a small town by the sea, only accessible through a mountain tunnel, shielded by majestic mountains, a place that is sometimes cut off by avalanches and snowstorms in the winter months. A place where the sun disappears behind the mountains in November and isn’t seen again for two months. In the summer, the nights are as bright as day.
The place is real, of course: the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjordur, only 40km from the Arctic Circle. Siglufjordur is actually very, very real to me; it’s the place where my father grew up and where I spent my summers at my grandparents’ home. Although I may be slightly biased, Siglufjordur is a picture-perfect postcard village; the scenery is beautiful, with its narrow fjord and the high mountains. It’s small and cosy, with only 1,200 inhabitants, and a place with a distinctive and rich history. Once the centre of the herring fishing industry in Iceland (when the population was much, much bigger) it’s now the home of an award-winning herring-era museum.
So, perhaps it isn’t a great surprise that when I began to think about writing my Dark Iceland crime series, Siglufjordur came straight to mind. And, in particular, winter in Siglufjordur. Winter is a difficult yet beautiful time in this northern town. It snows a lot and, therefore, it is one of the most popular ski resorts in Iceland. But the snow can also be overwhelming – snowstorm after snowstorm … The first book in my series, Snowblind, is set in January – the darkest and coldest period of the year in Siglufjordur – and, of course, as is fitting for a crime novel, the road leading up to the mountain tunnel is cut off by an avalanche.
A young policeman, fresh out of police academy, moves to Siglufjordur for his first post. What I found fascinating to contemplate was the isolation a young man might experience when moving from a relatively big city like Reykjavik to this distant place in the dead of winter. It’s a town where “nothing ever happens”, as the local inspector puts it, at the beginning of the book (and, of course, that is the case in real life), but for the purposes of the book, he couldn’t be more wrong. The young policeman has to tackle a difficult case from the outset, while also having to deal with insomnia, depression, homesickness and claustrophobia, feeling that the mountains are moving in on him …
To me, it was also interesting to try to incorporate the town into the stories as one of the main characters, so to speak. The town was a place of great inspiration for me in writing the books and, in a way, I felt I could give something back. Luckily, the warm and pleasant people of Siglufjordur have not objected to the fact that I have decided to set a crime series in their village – they seem to enjoy reading about their town in this unusual context. Although the crimes, the plot and the suspects are pure fabrication, more or less all locations are real, in one way or another. The streets are real, the theatre where a suspicious death takes place is real, even the theatre stairs on which the victim falls to his death. The old and picturesque church where a funeral takes place in the story, the local grocery store, the bakery (the home of tasty local cinnamon buns) is real, as is the small and wonderful fishmonger, where my characters (and I) buy amazing fresh or dried fish. The snowstorms are most definitely real! And even the stories from the herring era, as told to the protagonist by an elderly lady, are based on stories from my father’s family.
Writing about Siglufjordur has also been personally important to me, because my late grandfather (and my namesake, Þ. Ragnar Jónasson), who lived there most of his life, also wrote a series of books about Siglufjordur. He wrote about the folklore, the landscape and the history of the fjord and the town, and was awarded a cultural prize for his lifelong work in that field. I obviously have a different approach to my grandfather in terms of the type of work I create, but in one of the books in the series I was able to incorporate some of his work into my crime story, which I am sure he would have enjoyed. In any event, I hope that – in spite of all the darkness and intrigue in my stories – I have been able to write about Siglufjordur with the same affection and respect that my grandfather did.
Ragnar Jónasson is the author of Snowblind (translated by Quentin Bates), just published by Orenda Books. Nightblind, the next book in the Dark Iceland Series, will be published in 2016.