Michael Ridpath will be at the UK’s first-ever Travel Festival, Kings Place, on 23 June at 6.30 pm discussing Travel to the Dark Side: in a panel with David Hewson and Barbara Nadel, chaired by Barry Forshaw. He talks to Crime Time…
I am one of those small band of authors who dare to write crime novels set in a country which is not their own. Others include James Thompson (Finland of course), David Hewson (Italy) Craig Russell (Hamburg), Donna Leon (Italy), Martin Walker (France) and Michael Dibdin (Italy again). All but one of these I rate as some of the best writers in the genre, so it’s not a bad plan. However, unlike most of them, I knew very little about my chosen country when I started.
In fact, that’s why I decided to write about Iceland. I had previously written eight thrillers set in the financial world, a world which I knew well. I had got tired of finance, but not tired of some of the countries in which I had set my novels, in particular Brazil (The Marketmaker) and South Africa (See No Evil). In fact I loved uncovering how these countries and their people thought and behaved and in particular how their societies functioned. But just as I was beginning to really understand them, I moved on.
Time to pick a country, any country, and stick with it.
I chose Iceland. Ever since I had visited the place in 1995 on a book tour, I had vowed to squeeze it into a book somehow, but, ironically, I couldn’t figure out how to build a financial thriller around the country. It’s a wonderful place. The people are a manic lot, optimistic, enthusiastic, adventurous with a heightened sense of the absurd. The country itself is bleakly beautiful with its fjords, its glaciers, its lava fields and of course its volcanoes. Finally, bubbling underneath the modern, hip, high-tech culture are the Viking sagas, the myths, the elves and the trolls. Great!
I loved finding out about the place, visiting it, reading the literature, and, most of all, talking to people. I began to feel I was getting a real understanding of Iceland, and I was developing a real fondness for the country and its people. But then, when I began to write a novel – Where The Shadows Lie was my first – I began to doubt myself. There were two big hurdles to overcome.
The first was the phenomenon of the Scandinavian Crime Novel. You will have noticed that at no point did the popularity of the likes of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larson or Jo Nesbø contribute my desire to write about Iceland. But once I started writing and thinking of publishers, I couldn’t help it. Geographically, Iceland is Nordic, not Scandinavian, but there is no doubt that the country has strong linguistic and genetic links to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. And, most obviously, Scandinavian crime was selling well.
As a huge generalization, much Scandinavian crime tends to be set in bleak, cold, grey but ordered communities where on the surface everyone is law abiding, but underneath there are some damaged people who do dreadful things. The detectives who track down these killers are often damaged in their own way too. Now, the best of these novels are very good indeed. I enjoy reading them. But I didn’t want to write one.
It didn’t help that the novels of the foremost Icelandic crime writer, Arnaldur Indriđason are written in a similar vein. There’s a lot darkness in his books, grey buildings, dysfunctional families. Erlendur, his detective, is a loner: reserved, miserable, hurt. They are great books. And they do portray a certain aspect of Icelandic society with great acuity.
But I didn’t want to write about all that stuff. I wanted to write about lost sagas, volcanoes, mad rural priests, Tolkien nutters. My detective, Magnus, has his problems for sure, but he isn’t a product of the dark grey concrete streets of suburban Reykjavík. His soul lies in the mountains and the glaciers, in the ancient open air parliaments where medieval disputes were thrashed out, in the great literature of the country.
The other problem I had was the treatment of the myths that lie just beneath the surface of Icelandic society. I wanted to write about these, indeed they made up the central premise of Where The Shadows Lie, that a lost saga about a ring and a volcano inspired Lord of the Rings. Now, when Iceland presents itself to foreigners, it does so in one of two ways. There are little stories about elves and hidden people, cute jokes about how quaint the silly Icelanders are to believe in them, and effigies of the cheerful chappies in souvenir shops. Then there are the cool, hip Icelanders who are elf-deniers. Of course Icelanders are not so dumb as to believe in elves; foreigners are stupid to think that they do.
I, of course, didn’t want to become that kind of foreigner. In fact, I would say that outside Iceland I do not believe in the supernatural and certainly wouldn’t want to write about it.
Yet, the more I got to know Iceland, the more I realised how important ghosts, seers, fairy tales, trolls and, yes, the hidden people that lead a parallel existence in rocks dotted all over the country are. I’ve had serious conversations with serious people (a presidential candidate, a diplomat, a priest) about these matters. And when I have been walking alone in Iceland through a lava field, with the sun just above the horizon throwing its shadows on paths that were trodden by Vikings a thousand years before, I have found it very easy to suspend disbelief.
So I have written about crazies, jokers, spiritualists, cranks, poets, part-time rock musicians, idealists, optimists, ghosts, hidden people, trolls, berserkers. About the sagas, the volcanoes, the twisted fields of congealed lava, the long sun-filled nights, the hot-spring pools, the uninhibited no-strings-attached sex, the exuberant drunkenness, the accidental deaths in snow and fjord. No polar bears yet. I really need to write about a polar bear.
It seems to have worked. At least within Iceland, they recognize where I am writing about. A recent review of Meltwater in the country’s biggest Sunday newspaper said: "Even though Ridpath is writing about surroundings which are of course alien to him he has managed remarkably well to look beyond the surface of the Icelandic community, so the [Icelandic] reader does not feel any shivers of embarrassment when reading the books about Magnús" I am proud of that.
And yet I continue to write about my Iceland, the Iceland I see and that fascinates me, the place that I go to every morning between 8 am and 1 pm. They can’t take it away from me.
Michael’s Icelandic novels are in order: Where The Shadows Lie, 66 Degrees North (Far North in the US) and Meltwater.