Icelandic Noir on a dark, windswept island

Crime Corner

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

Anybody familiar with Icelandic history knows that this land that is so free of crime these days was actually founded in 897 A.D. by Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian warrior so fierce that his first act in Iceland was the revenge killing of a couple of Irishmen who had murdered his beloved blood brother.  There’s plenty of gore to spare in the history of Iceland, so it could be that crime fiction is something that comes naturally to the country.

There are certainly a lot of Icelandic writers mining the genre today, and, from my own sampling, the quality of the work is high. In many ways, Iceland is all about the weather and how we adjust to it: the country can be windswept, cold, and forbidding or green and fertile and full of phenomena like the northern lights. Daytime—as in 24-hour daylight­—can come to Iceland and stay a long time in the summer, so the noir shadows that are so vital to this kind of writing in other countries must in some cases be adapted to endless light, depending on the time of year. Icelandic writers are well aware of this: the forbiddingly attractive landscape of the country plays a major role in the three novels I want to tell you about.

Let’s start with the freshman effort— Eva Björg Ægisdóttir’s The Creak on the Stairs. Ægisdóttir hit big the first time out: this first book has already spawned the “Forbidden Iceland” series, which features Officer Elma, a young but already hard-bitten police officer, who returns to her childhood home in Akranes, a very small town on the western coast of Iceland.

In her first outing, which is The Creak on the Stairs (2018), Elma investigates the mysterious and violent death of a woman whose body has been found beside Akranes’ lighthouse. The dead woman, Elizabet, has local connections—Elma remembers her from her early days in Akranes—and Elma isn’t long into her sleuthing before all kinds of dots start connecting in ways that seem especially common in small towns.

Elma herself has a troubling past: there is David, a lover, back there—and also, of course, a backstory.  Whatever that is will be revealed in a later book, but David’s presence wafts mournfully through this book like a caller who won’t go away.

The same can be said about the dead Elizabet, who also haunts this story. We learn about Elizabet through flashbacks (in italics, natch) which don’t tell the full story until the end of the novel. The flashbacks are compelling enough to make the reader almost a partner in Elma’s detection. This debut novel packs a punch: Elma will clearly be around for a while. I saw that Ann Cleeves likes this series—and in its intricate plotting and strong female character it is somewhat Clevian. But it is its own thing as well. Check it out.

The world doesn’t need an introduction to Ragnar Jónasson, who has long been a best-selling author internationally.  He writes the Ali Thor series, but he is also a mentor to—yes—Eva Björg Ægisdóttir! That’s a double shot of a good thing!  And in The Darkness (2018) Jónasson offers up a new character who is a very special kind of kick-ass female—Hulda Hermannsdóttir, 64 years old, single, and about to be semi-forcibly retired from the Reykjavík police department.  But Hulda is far from ready to go, and thus she stubbornly holds on to one last case—an old one—that she believes she can still solve.

This involves the body of a Russian woman that has been washed up on a far-flung Iceland beach, leaving virtually no clues as to what happened. Hulda’s desire to mark the case closed is honest enough, but she also has to admit to herself that her life has not amounted to much at this point. She is about to enter senior citizenry as a lonely misfit who hasn’t much to show for her time on earth. These dual propellants—the closed case and Hulda’s own demons—drive the novel.

I liked this character a lot and am glad that a series has emerged. Hulda seems not to fully realize how competent her work has been—an unfortunate circumstance not helped by a myopic jerk of a supervisor who wants her out. And then there is that cliffhanger ending, of which I will not say more. But it’s a great one.

And then there is the Erlendur series by Arnaldur Indriðason. The novel I chose from this author is Reykjavík Nights from 2014—a work that has long ago found popular and critical success. His character, the police officer Erlendur, is a low-key fellow in the model of Maigret or Karin  Fossum’s Inspector Sejer—quiet, far from showy—and dogged in  his investigations. This novel fits the moniker of prequel, since we are in the 1960s here and Erlendur is still an inspector as opposed to the detective status we are used to.

The plot involves Hannibal, a drowned homeless man, who Erlendur barely knew in life, but who in death haunts him. Christ must have had Hannibal in mind when he said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do even unto me,” because Hannibal is pretty much a cipher, a man without accomplishment or achievement. And yet—and yet—he is a human being, which is of course Christ’s point.

So, often in detective fiction today, we see our protagonist fail in his or her more mythic search but succeed in small acts of one-to-one salvation. Think Staalesen’s Varg Veum. This is that kind of book. Hannibal’s is not the only open investigation in the book and, of course, the two stories will collide—but the crispness of Indridason’s plotting makes everything fit, and the subtle urgency of his prose succeeds in making us care about the hapless Hannibal—and care equally about the investigator who won’t quit even when everyone else does. In its apparent but very deceptive stoicism, Reykjavík Nights is the most satisfying of my three Iceland reads. But believe me on this: you cannot go wrong with any of them.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.