Arnaldur Indridason’s excellent novel Strange Shores concluded with his main detective, Erlendur, out in the mountains of Eastern Iceland contemplating his own death and that of his younger brother who was lost in a blizzard when they were children. Though the ending is ambiguous, it does seem like final closure on a superb series which spans 11 books, with the final nine of them available in English.
So, fans were delighted when it was announced that Arnaldur would be writing three books about Erlendur’s early career. Reykjavik Nights came out last year to rave reviews, and the most recent is Oblivion. With the author making a rare visit to London, Crime Fiction Lover was invited to an interview with him at the Penguin Random House HQ in Pimlico. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ecstatic to bring you our conversation with Arnaldur Indridason…
Oblivion has just come out in English. What do you think crime fiction lovers are going to enjoy most about this book?
Well, I think going back in time. No internet or Facebook or Twitter or websites. It takes place in 1979 and times are so much simpler. When you try to solve a case, it takes a long, long time – much longer than today when you can just send the pictures or phone in and get all the information. It was great fun just to go back to those times, which I’d forgotten existed at all.
And also to maybe find out about Erlendur and his quest for the missing. People stop caring, except Erlendur, he goes on. He reads an obituary in the newspaper – the father of a girl who disappeared is dead. Everybody is dying who knew her, so he goes on because he is Erlendur, the man who can solve these cases. Even then he is 33.
In the two Young Erlendur books, Reykjavik Nights and this one, you kind of see where he is going with this vanishing thing, the missing. His interest is not absolutely in the missing themselves, but the people who are left behind, the people that are living the sorrow and the loss. This is what I hope you’ll get from the two books.
There’s another Young Erlendur story called The Great Match. It’s out in Icelandic, do you know if they will publish it in English?
I hope they will because it is a link between Strange Shores and the past. It’s a story about Marion Briem, the old cop, the friend of Erlendur. There was this great, great chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. It was a huge thing. Huge. And there’s this case of a boy going to a movie who is stabbed to death, and somehow there’s this connection to the great match.
You’ve never used personal pronouns to indicate whether Marion is a man or woman. Can you reveal this?
I have no idea. It’s written in a way that you can’t tell. Some think she’s a woman, others think he’s a man. Even in this book you will go between ideas.
What made you decide to go back to the Young Erlendur after Strange Shores?
I think it was to find out about how he discovers his interest in the missing, in the lost, and those left behind. I think those are the two cases, in 1974 in Reykjavik Nights and in 1979 in Oblivion, that make him the detective he becomes. And also because of what happened to his brother in the blizzard. It helps him to decide that this is what he wants to do, to look for people who have disappeared and to meet the people that are left behind and see how they feel, because he is one of them.
Is it a kind of therapy for him, dealing with his younger brother’s death?
Absolutely. He finds his own people. People who are just like him. After the tragedy, somehow time stops and you can’t jumpstart it again when something of this scale happens. Some can just live with it and keep on with it but the family didn’t and Erlendur certainly didn’t because he felt a bit responsible for what happened and he just can’t shake it off.
Do you have any more ideas for Erlendur stories from the past, or from the future?
I don’t think there will be any more, or I’m not planning anymore. We have now the connection to the first book, which hasn’t been published in English, Sons of Dust I think it is. I’m always asked if Strange Shores is the end. I have no idea. It’s written so that it’s ambiguous.
What was it that inspired you to write crime fiction when you wrote Sons of Dust and then it became the Erlendur series?
Well, we didn’t have this kind of book in Iceland at all. There were one or two in the past but nothing concrete, no tradition like they had in the Nordic countries of crime novels. So it was a new thing. New thinking. I think the reason why we didn’t have the tradition is because we are a literary nation, but we are a highly literary nation. We don’t look at the crime novel as literature.
So genre fiction was looked down upon?
Absolutely, it was like that and still is. And the reason for this is that we are in Iceland with 320,000 people and not much happens that makes a good crime story. There are very few murders and the scale is very small. We have crime and drugs and prostitution and everything, but the scale is so small that it hardly needs to be mentioned. So the challenge is to make something out of it.
Is it a challenge to make it realistic?
The main point is to make it realistic, if you are writing for Iceland. I only write for the Icelandic audience, of course, I don’t know how to write for the French, for instance. They will demand reality and believability. This is my view. One murder in a book is it – tops. Four, five, six is absolutely off the scale.
So what you do is instead of external suspense, you go inside your characters and make them believable and real, and find tension there. That’s what I always try and do. The books are very character-driven, every one of them. I’m not looking for suspense or violence per se, just to write violence, it’s all part of the conversation, I think. I hope so.
If you don’t like or dislike the character, if you don’t follow the character, if you don’t somehow connect with the character, there’s no reason to tell the story, in my view. There is no story if it isn’t character based. We are all human beings. We all want to know about each other, how we feel, how we are, what we do. It’s much more about this than about helicopters and explosions and car chases and all this external expense. It’s all on the inside, I think. I hope that is the effect.
Where did you find inspiration for Erlendur?
He is of course part of a huge collection of detectives who live alone and are divorced. He doesn’t drink, I’m proud of that. As I said, we didn’t have this tradition at all of detective writing so when I made my policeman, very early I felt that he had to be very much mixed into Icelandic society, the story of Iceland in the past 40, 50, 60 years. The history of Iceland and the environment and everything Icelandic, even though it was not considered good literature at the time, I felt I should really, really try to use it in his character. Early on I felt that he, like many, many Icelanders, had lived through the changes that have been taking place in Iceland since World War II, from being a very, very poor peasant society to being a very, very rich modern society that actually collapsed.
I think that one of the reasons it collapsed was the timespan. It was too fast, and Erlendur is part of this evolution because when things happen this fast there are people who are left behind, that won’t take part in the changes. They will be disconnected from the flux. They will just stand by and time will go past them, and this was my thought about Erlendur when I thought it may be a series. He is not based on any of the fictional characters that we have in the genre, and he is very, very rooted in Icelandic society and the history of Iceland.
Does that include the landscape or is it more about the history?
Well it isn’t very conscious on my part to have the landscape or the weather or the clean air and everything we have to offer. I just write my stories and if I need the bad weather it’s very easy to do. If I need the sunshine it’s more difficult, but I can do it. It’s urban stories. They take place mostly in Reykjavik, so it’s a city story, but there is lots of, like in Strange Shores, out of town and into the countryside and there are the landscapes and the mountains. The cold is a killer. And there is also this change that he is always avoiding. We have the aluminium factory and we have this big dam, and everything that he is not a part of. He is the antidote to evolution.
What are the most important themes are that you’ve written about in the series?
Well, I’ve written about all kinds of things. Espionage, for instance, in The Draining Lake, and genetic databases like in Jar City, and rape in Outrage. One of the most effective in my view is domestic violence in The Silence of the Grave. I wanted to write about this horrible, horrible crime that is domestic violence because it’s a very hidden crime, and it goes with great shame for the victim who doesn’t talk about it and the other victims are the children of the family of the abused.
This is how an idea comes, when you sit down at a computer and start writing about it. I don’t know what will happen when I begin, I don’t have the chapters planned for me. I just have loose ideas, like for instance the theme of domestic violence, and Erlendur and the people around him, and a few ideas along the way, and when you start writing the stories you will find out. The best part of it is you can surprise yourself, and then you imagine the reader will be surprised.
Do you have a favourite from the series?
No, I can’t say that I have. I had a great time writing Strange Shores, actually, and going back to where it started and how it happened, and him being there thinking back and dying of cold.
How did Iceland’s economic crash give you inspiration?
Well, Black Skies, was written as a direct effect of the collapse. It is all about the greed that we heard about for sure in Iceland before the big crash. Everyone was thinking about money – your car and your house, everybody had big loans. There was money everywhere. Nothing but materialism. You were valued by how many millions you had, and it was a very sick, sick situation and we never knew were the money came from and we never knew where it went after the crash. It’s a mind-boggling thing. And since then we’ve been just trying to win ourselves back into some kind of economic status that we can understand and be happy with and it’s taken until now, what, seven years, but we’re getting there. We have better economics now, there is very little unemployment now.
Do you read much other crime fiction?
No, not anymore. I work on it day in day out, and it’s one book a year now. When I read, it’s totally different from crime. It’s historical accounts, it’s biographies, it’s poetry. It’s very inspirational to read a book of poems. I try to write like a poet, I really do, because I think it’s very undervalued how poetic a crime story can beand how literary crime fiction can be. It’s always looked upon as just another pulp fiction. It’s absolutely not. It’s a great venue to be poetic and be literate in a crime story. I’m always trying to have the text elevate the story.
Thanks to your books millions of people now are able to see Iceland, experience it a little even if they can’t go there. Is this something you’re proud of?
I really don’t have it in mind when I write my stories. I have no idea what effects the books will have on readers regarding Iceland and their view of Iceland. It’s just not in my thought process at all. I just sit down and write my story. I never put anything in purposefully that will make Iceland seem like a very nice nation, or a very bad nation.
I think foreigners have a very innocent view of Iceland. They think there are no crimes and everything is so beautiful and so nice, we’re high in the north and were isolated for many, many years. But, as I say, we have all the crimes and corruption and whatever you have in the big cities in Europe and around the world, only on a very small scale. We are not as pure as maybe people think.
And even today it’s a very difficult country to live in. The weather can change like this. You’re up on the mountain, you’re thinking of taking a hike for the day, and there’s a blizzard at the end of it. You’re lost, and even if you have GPS you still get lost in Iceland. It’s not lost in translation, it’s lost for good…
More recently there are authors like Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Ragnar Jonasson. They have had a chance to shine because of your early successes. What do you think of them?
I haven’t read crime for ages now but it’s been a great evolution, since the late 90s there have been so many writers coming forth with crime stories in Iceland. There’s a community of crime writers now in Iceland. Every year we have six or seven new crime stories, which is huge for us. There are always new writers coming up and foreign publishers are looking to Iceland for crime writers and it’s great news, of course, when they buy a book from Iceland. To get it published outside of Iceland is huge because as I said, it’s a very small language, it’s a very small market.
What do you think the future holds for Scandinavian crime fiction?
People are always looking for the next big thing. I think Nordic noir is the big thing now, it has been for some years, and I think it’s because these are good books. They come from a very good tradition in Scandinavian crime novels beginning with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in Sweden. It’s been a long evolution and it’s just blossomed now in the past years with Steig Larsson. I think because it’s rooted in Scandinavian storytelling – not just in crime stories, but in the Scandinvavian storytelling tradition – it will have ongoing popularity. This isn’t something out of the blue at all, this is rooted in very good crime stories from Scandinavia.