Iceland Noir – Iceland’s Festival of Crime Fiction by West Camel

Iceland has no dialects. This – for a native English-speaker like myself – is the surprising fact that emerges from one of the final panel discussions at 2016’s Iceland Noir. The nominees for the Icepick Award – a prize presented to the best crime fiction book translated into Icelandic – are discussing the ins and outs of rendering novels into the language. Ann Cleeves, the English author famous for her series of detective novels set in Northumberland and in Shetland, reminds us that her books, by necessity, contain lots of local dialect. The only way to represent these in Icelandic, it seems, is to use character, slang, and distinctive vocabulary.

All of the panels at Iceland Noir provide such fascinating nuggets of information. At the festival’s opening discussion – ‘New Blood in Iceland’s Crime Fiction’ – debut author, Hildur Sif Thorarensen, mentions that there are so few murders committed in Iceland, she has sent her characters abroad in order to find enough authentic crime. At the same panel, author Oskar Gudmundsson discusses another challenge Iceland presents the crime writer: the fact it is an island – it has no borders for criminals to escape over.

A similar theme is picked up in a panel entitled ‘Small Town Skulduggery’: how place, specifically small communities, affect the crime fiction genre. Once again, Ann Cleeves provides an intriguing discussion point: rumour is vital to the small town setting. Are rumours believed; are they acted upon? What danger to rumours represent, and do they end up being true? Fellow panellists, Ragnar Jonasson and Viveca Sten agree that these dynamics provide huge opportunities for the crime writer.

Another aspect of place comes up in the ‘Darkness – What Frightens You?’ panel. For Iceland, of course, darkness is a literal phenomenon. However, New Zealander, and long-term Iceland resident, Grant Nichol says, for his compatriots it is generally something more figurative. His experience of Nordic people is that they embrace the seasons almost too much!

In the same discussion, British writer, AK Benedict, describes her own multicultural background, and points out that her relatives, despite their differing heritages, all tell stories of being alone. For her this represents a spiritual darkness – a ‘twilight place’ that she thinks is the most interesting for a writer, of crime or any other type of fiction, to discuss. Benedict thinks that Nordic Noir explores this kind of literary ‘chiaroscuro’ particularly well.

One panel, inevitably, is entirely devoted to Nordic writing – specifically to ‘Dangerous Nordic Women’. This discussion brings up some disagreement. For Icelander Solveig Palsdottir, writing crime entails breaking with a ‘good girl’ image. However, bestselling Danish writer, Sara Blædel, feels that she has stepped outside her comfort zone only a little, and that being accepted as a woman crime writer in Denmark is not difficult. Fellow bestseller, the Finnish Kati Hiekkapelto, agrees, but with a caveat: while Finland feels equal, and she has been accepted as a female crime writer, only 25% of Finnish book reviews are of titles written by women. Icelander Jonina Leosdottir suggests that this paradox might stem from the fact that the early pioneers of crime fiction were women – Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, for example; but that awards, advertising and reviews are still skewed towards male writing, a fact evident in the traditional Icelandic Christmas ‘book rush’.

These, and many more themes emerging from the festival, are touched upon by eminent Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, who gives the keynote speech at the festival reception.

For McDermid – exposed, as so many Iceland Noir crime writers were, at an early age to the well-constructed plots and thematic payoffs of Christie’s fiction – Noir as a genre came as a revelation; a form focussing on darkness, but with cracks that ‘let the light in’. The breakthrough Nordic Noir novel, in McDermid’s opinion, was Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. This showed that Nordic crime fiction described the UK – and specifically the Scottish – experience much better than US Noir did. Quoting Ann Cleeves, McDermid describes, significantly, the bridges between the UK and Europe – how UK and Nordic readers ‘read across the North Sea’. By reading each other’s books, and by setting stories in each other’s towns, the reading and writing communities become welcome tourists in each other’s countries.

McDermid finishes her address with a fascinating insight into recent developments in the publishing industry in the UK and in the rest of Europe. After a period of downturn, when the big publishers came to dominate, when every book had to make a profit, and when, in the UK, library funding was cut, reducing the money ‘mid-list’ titles could make, there was a rush to novelty, and many authors lost their contracts. However, recent years have seen the emergence of small, independent publishers, helped by lower production costs and the advent of social media, which has made marketing much easier and less expensive.

McDermid is encouraged by this new publishing landscape. And, coming away from the festival, I feel that the European literary and publishing community should be too. While Iceland Noir’s focus is on crime fiction, the variety of ideas, the energy and enthusiasm of the participants – and, most significantly, the impressive attendance at its more than twenty events – should come as good news to those outside the genre.

By West Camel

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 19 December 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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