Every Icelander knows about the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur cases. It is a story so deeply embedded into the national consciousness that even those born long after the disappearances are well versed in the particulars. A phone call. A meeting at a café. A strange clay head. On an unusual island where crime is rare and murder almost non-existent, this is the Icelandic crime story, one that continues to enthral a nation almost forty five years after two men vanished into thin air and left behind barely a scrap of evidence about their whereabouts.
In January 1974 a young man named Gudmundur went to a nightclub in a town near Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. He got drunk and danced with some friends. Witnesses would later testify that they saw him stumbling near the nightclub at 2 am. A storm was sweeping through southwest Iceland and the twisting black rock of the lava fields alongside where Gudmundur walked were already dusted with snow. He was not alone. There was a man with him wearing a yellow shirt. After that night, Gudmundur was never seen again.
10 months later, another man disappeared. His name was Geirfinnur. He was 32 years old and worked as a labourer in Keflavik, a thirty minute drive from where Gudmundur had lived. It was 10 pm when Geirfinnur left his home. After a short drive, he arrived at a café. He entered and scanned the room as if he was looking for somebody. But the person he was due to meet did not seem to be there. He returned home.
As he came through his front door, the phone rang. He answered. His ten year old son heard him say ‘I was just there. OK, I’ll come back.’ Geirfinnur grabbed his coat and headed for the door. His son asked if he could come too and he was told that he could not. Geirfinnur’s car was found parked outside the café the next morning. Just like Gudmundur, Geirfinnur had vanished.
For a safe and peaceful country like Iceland, the suspicious circumstances surrounding Geirfinnur’s disappearance caused something close to public hysteria. A bust of a suspect witnessed making a phone call from the café was cast in clay and shown around the country. News of the enigmatic disappearance was brought to farmhouses and fishing communities in the furthest corners of the country.
What followed was a bizarre tale of corrupt nightclubs and illegal alcohol smuggling, opportunistic politicians and drug-peddling criminal gangs. It was, in short, the moment that organized crime arrived to Icelandic shores.
Iceland has come to fascinate me as much as these strange cases. It is a story that could not have happened anywhere else. Iceland’s tiny population creates the impression that everyone knows everyone. When two men disappeared in mysterious circumstances, the close-knit community began to warp into something altogether more claustrophobic and paranoid. There was a pressure cooker atmosphere that sent the country into a kind of frenzy.
These strange crimes are inextricably bound to their setting. My book, Out of Thin Air, explores the two disappearances in the context of one of the world’s most intriguing countries.
Out of Thin Air by Anthony Adeane is published in hardback on 8th March by riverrun