Two new works of Nordic Noir depict Iceland as a land of dark beauty and despair

Iceland is one of the safest places to live and visit in the world, except in Icelandic crime fiction. Picture: Shutterstock
Iceland is one of the safest places to live and visit in the world, except in Icelandic crime fiction. Picture: Shutterstock

The small island nation of Iceland, with its very low crime rate, is one of the safest places to live and visit in the world, except in Icelandic crime fiction.

Arnaldur Indridason is, in this reviewer's opinion, the best of the current writers of Nordic Noir. His prize-winning novels have sold over 15 million copies world wide in over 40 languages.

He is best known for his series featuring the melancholic detective Erlendur. However, his latest novel, published in Icelandic in 2017, The Darkness Knows (Harvill Secker. $32.99), is the first in the series about Detective Konrad, a retired policeman with a troubled past, in Reykjavik.

Konrad comes out of retirement when a group of German tourists on Iceland's Langjokull glacier discover a frozen body: "The ice had treated him kindly, preventing decomposition. He appeared to have been around 30 when he died".

Iceland's bleak, cold landscape is a perfect backdrop for dark secrets and emotional despair.

The body is identified as Sigurvin, a business man who had disappeared 30 years ago, and climate change shrinking the glacier has exposed his body. Konrad, who had been in charge of the original investigation, returns as a consultant on what is now a cold case investigation. Konrad had long waited "for this news that continued to haunt him like a shadow".

The discovery of Sigurvin's body prompts a woman to approach Konrad about the death of her brother in a hit and run accident seven years earlier. Her evidence will eventually unearth the truth as to why Sigurvin was murdered.

Indridason is a masterful storyteller. He uses his complex and clever detective story to explore issues that affect modern Iceland: the drinking culture; the greed of the boom years; the lingering consequences of the aftermath of the global financial crisis; and the threat to the traditional ways of life from climate change. Experts have predicted that if Iceland's ice cap continues to shrink at the current rate, it will have disappeared by the end of the century.

The Darkness Knows is a finely paced, multi-tiered story about guilt and remorse, with Iceland's bleak, cold landscape a perfect backdrop for dark secrets and emotional despair.

Ragnar Jonasson is arguably Indridason's literary successor in Nordic Noir. His novels explore the hostility of the Icelandic landscape and the effect of isolation on the human psyche.

Jonasson has said, "I have a lot of fun thinking about the impact isolation has on people. What is it like living in a place cut off from the world because of the high mountains, the snow? The more I put my characters under the pressure of isolation, the more extreme behaviour we see in them. In my crime novels I try to narrow the cast of characters because the fewer the people the more interesting it becomes". His dream is "to figure out a way to write a mystery with only one character in the middle of nowhere".

Jonasson seems to be working towards his "dream' in his latest novel The Girl Who Died (Michael Joseph. $32.99), which is set in the village of Skalar with a population of only 10 people. Skalar exists, and a map at the beginning of the novel shows how isolated it is. It was abandoned in the 1950s, but Jonasson has drawn on both written and oral history sources to recreate the village as it might have been in 1985, before the mobile phone and the internet.

Una is struggling to make ends meet living alone in Reykjavik. Her pay as a supply teacher barely covers her bills. She regrets abandoning her medical degree but knows she had "no passion for it. The spark wasn't there".

In desperation she answers an advert for a teacher "wanted at the edge of the world" for two girls in Skalar, even though she knows "you couldn't get any further from Reykjavik if you tried", because with free accommodation she might solve her financial problems.

Una knows that in a village of only 10, where everyone knows each other, she'd be an outsider. "But perhaps this was what she had been yearning for: solitude without loneliness." The reality, however is more confronting than she had anticipated. Arriving in a dense fog, she feels as if she is "in an old tale, an ominous supernatural tale, set in a vague, shifting world". The villagers are unfriendly, she's convinced there's a ghost of a child in the attic bedroom of her apartment and, as the winter darkness settles and a child dies, the villagers turn against her. Her isolation is complete.

The Girl Who Died is a chilling psychological thriller both literally and metaphorically, with an unexpected ending that will haunt the reader as much as Una. Nordic Noir, as usual, doesn't disappoint.

This story Cold land of beauty and despair first appeared on The Canberra Times.