Bob, Teresa and I spent a week in Iceland last summer. We fell in love with this odd and lovely island that still sees Vikings around every corner; is cold and windy and gray but NOT covered in ice; and feeds its visitors fermented shark.
Since Iceland is so picturesque AND because I have so many photos I am hoping to stretch my little essays over several days—off and on/now and then.
To begin exploring murder most northern, it seemed like a photo essay investigating the many places where victims could be cleverly concealed would be appropriate. You see we were there and, while we didn’t find any actual bludgeoned bodies or icy eyeballs we did go on a mystery writers tour which took us to various locations featured in Icelandic crime novels. I am sorry to report that what is a brilliant idea came off as earnest and uninspiring. The two well-mannered young women guiding the walk just could not manage any vicious vibes so we soon went off to have a nice Icelandic beer. I do hope that the suggestions of foul play accompanying the photos that follow will make you a little more leery of Reykjavik’s dark and shadowy corners than what our pretty tour guides could manage.
You can rest assured that Iceland does indeed support several interesting murder mystery writers so if you enjoy the deceptively cozy scenes that follow or the gloomy landscapes full of deadly potential in days to come, know that you can spend many book-hours deep within these often lethal nooks and crannies.
The only two things most people know about me is that I’m very proud of my Scandinavian heritage and I hate guns. Perhaps then, I am a biased judge of crime fiction of the European North where murder has to be carried out more imaginatively since they do not share our national passion for guns. Not that plenty of fictional Scandinavian crime doesn’t involve shooting—after all there’s only so much you can do with knives and poison!
Since last post’s overview of worldwide crime I’ve decided to proceed by region/country for awhile, moving through Scandinavia, southern Africa and the UK before returning to explore other less literarily murderous locations.
Scandinavia is usually defined as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland—an outline which I will follow. However there are enough differences between them to note along the way plus the interesting situation of Greenland, a gigantic island closer to America than Europe, primarily inhabited by the Inuit people, and still governed by Denmark.
I do love being Scandinavian. Norwegian to be exact. When I look at my history wall crowded with photos of big solid serious immigrant ancestors on their South Dakota farms and in their Minnesota lumber camps I am proud. I wish I had more of a photographic history of “the old country” and their lives there. The good news is…I can and have traveled there…and seen and heard the people and met the relatives and eaten the food and understood that I was home in a very special way. The downside of my expanding knowledge of family history is that there appear to be no serious villains or even dashing ne’er-do-wells about whom I could fashion a mystery or two.
Since, off and on, this blog will take a murderous turn—right now in a Scandinavian direction, it seemed right to describe my travels in the north over the last few years as crime scenes—how if I were a crime fiction writer I could use these locations to set or solve the bloody deed. And how my favorite crime-solvers in each country have handled the place.
So now my inner mystery writer will take over for a few paragraphs—always on the lookout for just the right place to discover the body or the perpetrator.
Murder #1: Morticia in Reykjavik: In the mid-80s I first landed on Scandinavian soil. Iceland. My friend Sue and I were visiting England and France and Icelandic Air, with a 24 hour layover in Reykjavik, was the cheapest way to go. The overnight flight from NYC had been uncomfortably cramped which was only partially made up for by the best flaky white non-fishy fish I, a non-fish eater at the time, had ever eaten. It was my first trip to Europe and everything, from arriving at the big, busy and confusing NY airport to finding that the third person in our seating row appeared to be an evil countess from some exotic eastern European country of which we had never heard, was exiting. Our seatmate looked very much like Morticia Adams, was terribly haughty and made us feel…well, like ‘hicks abroad.’
Eventually we arrived, tired and eager, on foreign soil. Our hotel, near the airport, was Scandinavian modern and comfortable enough. We slept, then ventured out into the intriguing but somewhat foreboding world of Iceland on a dark, dreary and very chilly evening. Walking, walking, up a small hill to an anguished metal viking, back down a side street to the cozy restaurant discovered in “Europe on $25 dollars a Day.” (Honestly, I did not make that up!) By this time it was 10pm but daylight was still turned on. Inside however, maybe in deference to visitors’ body clocks, it was so very dark. Back in the day, in Dallas and Albuquerque, we NEVER ate after six and NEVER in small dark very expensive restaurants so we were in a state of tourist wonderland.
We ordered whatever the book said we should. I am sure it was well prepared but honestly the only thing I remember is the skyr (tart Icelandic yogurt) and the effect the wine had on our weary selves. We were seated in a corner and, even though the place was small, it was dark enough not to see who came and went very well. So, imagine my surprise when, slightly drunk by now, I visit the bathroom and upon, opening the stall door find our non-friend Morticia on the toilet seat, black tights down around her ankles, black sweatered torso slumped back against the tank, head flopped forward, black hair partially covering her face. What made me scream, even through my white wine fog was nearly impenetrable—was what looked like an antique wooden handle with silver inlays—sticking out through the mane of hair falling over her chest. There were no splatters or pools of gruesomeness yet—it had obviously just happened but the front of her already black outfit was further darkening and the gore seemed to be oozing, down through and under the wrinkled front of her pulled up skirt onto the toilet seat and into the toilet bowl. Blood red, the color of zinnias. The stall was so tiny she could not have fallen over without getting wedged between stool and wall but there she sat, relatively upright, thoroughly dead. I was back at the restroom door by then, gasping and uttering sounds more than actually saying anything—I think the waitress thought I was having a heart attack until I opened the door wider and pointed…then she screamed, a scream worth of victim-discovery in any language.
The rest of the night is a blur; it’s almost 30 years ago, wine, jet lag, etc.. Of course the police came and I was as helpful as possible, and we boarded our plane for London in the morning exhausted but, I must admit, feeling like true adventurers. And though later we tried calling the Icelandic embassy in the U.S. to find out who Morticia was and why she’d been murdered this was pre-internet…and without Google there is nothing to know. But I am sure, for the rest of my life, the image of Morticia murdered in a toilet will flash across my mind’s eye ever so swiftly when I enter any deserted bathroom and reach to pull open the stall door.
I can make up these little vignettes for everywhere I’ve been around the world, then if I can attract the attention of the right publisher they’ll contract me to revisit the sites of the imaginary murders and conduct further imaginary investigations from my imaginary Cold Case file and write imaginative stories about each and every one. They will pay me in imaginary money and therein lies the problem.
I’ve never tried to describe a murder scene before so maybe this is enough for one day. This kind of writing is probably not my cup of tea since I’ve never worked as a journalist, crime reporter, medical professional or been part of M16. I must have read hundreds of descriptions of crime scenes over the years though and watched enough NCIS and Law and Order to have absorbed a dictionary of details.
There you have it…Murder site #1 on the Scandinavian crime fiction tour. I cannot remember enough to make it very atmospheric. So moving right along to my next visit to Iceland in 2012 (and next body!) will enable me to fill that void.
But not today. Matthew finally had his second car crash at about 12:30 this morning and I’m too tired for more disaster.
Some hours of my life are devoted to murder mysteries; it’s just the way it is. Hours which include: on-line research, reading, blogging…once in awhile I have even tried to write some little “starter” murder stories myself (I use the terms crime fiction and murder mysteries almost interchangeably). That unfortunately did not turn out well.
In an earlier post I talked about the early days of my crime fiction addiction from Nancy Drew well into le Carré. Why so many of us throughout the world become enamored of this bloody genre is another question. In any case, just googling “crime fiction” and then reviewing the first couple of pages is an adventure in itself. Some examples: Detectives Beyond Borders/Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home; International Noir Fiction; The Independent (UK newspaper) Crime Fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths; Scandinavian Crime Fiction; Crime fiction from southern Africa: Women Writers; Contemporary American Crime Fiction (from crimeculture.com); New York Magazine feature/scandinavian-crime-fiction-guide-2011-5; barbarafister.com Scandinavian Crime Fiction; MYSTERIES in PARADISE; Crime Fiction Lover; an Afrikanner African Studies page “Investigating African Crime Fiction” and a number of Henning Mankell/Inspector Wallander websites.
My personal fascinations with this whole genre focus firstly on the sense of place and secondly the sensation of realism that all the best crime fiction offers. It’s often as atmospheric as travel literature. Yes, that in itself earns my love. Then add a big dose of political/social commentary, a surly, almost-failed male or female cop/detective/spy, a grisly unsolved murder or two and a good deal of excitement and suspense involved in the solving. What is not to love?
I’ve been reading online about crime fiction in general lately. It did seem like Crime fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths, an article in The Independent, a UK newspaper, printed in 2008, would be of interest However it turns out to be a bit slim in covering the contemporary scene even five years ago and it committed a major faux pas in my opinion—no mention of Southern Africa except for Alexander Mccall Smith’s sweet but silly Lady’s Detective Agency novels which the article refers to as “cozy crime.” Some of the best crime fiction of all is coming from that part of the world, Deon Meyer being as good as it gets in meeting all of my criteria and more. There are a number of others but in fairness several of them may have been just starting out when this article was written. Still, not mentioning Deon Meyer is a crime all on its own.
The writer Jonathan Gibbs does mention several of my favorites in the UK: Ian Rankin and Denise Mina from Scotland; Colin Dexter from Oxford—have I actually read his books or only seen the PBS series?) and my new favorite Brit mystery writer, Peter James from Brighton, whose Roy Grace series is packed with my six musts. The UK is definitely in third place for good crime fiction, Scandinavia being first and Southern Africa second.
The article spends a lot of time around Europe which in general hasn’t proven to be rewardingly murderous. Obviously I must explore further, but so far Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels leave me unafraid and the few others I’ve sampled over the years were less than memorable. Historical crime may be more in fashion in Europe than elsewhere, also a sub-genre I’ve never found interesting—not sure why since I read almost as much history as mystery. There are two other mentions of which I highly approve: Omar Yussef whose two books are set in Gaza and West Bank and Colin Cotterill’s series which takes place in 1970s Laos. The latter is a little too cute in the same way as McCall’s Botswana and they are historical—still, they’re definitely atmospheric with great anti-hero heroes. For now I offer the most horrific description of being a witness to murder one can imagine in one’s darkest moments.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
HAMLET: O God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
(Act 1, Scene 5/Hamlet