There’s one question that I’ve been asked more than any other while I’ve been doing the promo rounds for my new book, The Last Refuge. Why the (insert appropriate expletive here) have you set a book in the Faroe Islands?
It’s a fair question and one that I asked myself regularly while squelching through the cold, wet and miserable streets of the capital Torshavn on a research trip. And this, mind you, from someone whose other books are set on the comparatively balmy and sun-soaked boulevards of Glasgow.
After all, the Faroes are an almost crime-free haven. An oasis of peace for just 48,000 inhabitants who had suffered only one murder in 26 years. Hardly rich pickings for a crime novel. Nor does it help that most people don’t have a clue where they are (answer: due north, lying in some bemused triangle between Iceland, Scotland and Norway) or know anything about the place.
And yet… all the things that made it challenging also made it irresistible. It was unchartered territory both in terms of crime and crime fiction. It was a big old patch of untrodden snow that was just crying out to have bloody footprints trailed all over it.
The landscape and the people just seemed made for noir fiction too. The former is bleak, desolate, stark, stunningly beautiful yet full of foreboding. The latter are stoic, cool and undemonstrative, welcoming yet very much a society with implicit parameters and their own traditions.
One of those traditions pretty much sealed the deal for me. The Faroese whale hunt is, by its very nature, a hugely controversial event. Fishermen get behind pods of pilot whales and drive them towards the shore where they are beached. The island men then stride into the water and slice the whales’ spinal cords, turning the sea a bloody red. As a crime writer, there is no chance I can resist such a scene.
So, I had a setting. A strange land where people live in multi-coloured houses with turf roofs and most of them depend on the sea for a living. They eat whale and puffin, drink akvavit, enjoy endless summer days, endure long, dark winters and frequently have four seasons in an afternoon. All I then needed was a character, preferably more than one, and a story.
The first grew from the ground up and became the second. A Scot named John Callum (it made his dialogue easier), a stranger in this strange land, letting us see it through his outsider’s eyes. Why the (insert appropriate expletive here) had he come to the Faroe Islands? What or who was he running away from? Himself? Ah…
Of course I couldn’t let him get away from whatever it was. Where would be the fun in that? Nor, of course, could I let the island’s murder-free tranquillity continue. The only problem for John Callum, is that he doesn’t know whether or not he is the killer. Actually, that’s only one of his problems but it will do for starters.
The Faroes turned out to be a pretty great place to set a crime novel. A location where both the land and the people that live on it are shaped by the forces of nature that they are constantly assaulted by. A place where man and environment are in a perpetual war with only one winner.
So that’s why I’ve set a book in the Faroe Islands. That and the fact that I was going to set one partly in Tallin but Peter Bloody Robinson got there first. Actually, I owe Peter Bloody Robinson a large drink because his annoyingly excellent Watching the Dark forced me to embark on a pin sticking tour of Europe that finally resulted in me landing in the right place in the end.
The Faroes became my last refuge and I’m glad they did. I just wish it didn’t (insert appropriate expletive here) rain as much.
The Last Refuge is published by Simon & Schuster