Chilled to the Bone – #NordicNoir at the Capital Crime Festival by guest blogger Ewa Sherman

The inaugural Capital Crime Festival took place on the last weekend in September 2019. It featured leading crime and thriller authors, encompassing a variety of styles and subjects, providing snapshots of the hugely popular genre. 

I volunteered for one day only and had a chance to attend a couple of panels, and of course I could not miss the one with Nordic Noir royalty! Chaired by publisher Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, the panel was called Chilled to the Bone – the title of Quentin Bates’ third installment in his series set in and around Reykjavik. Though not a native Icelander, Quentin’s experiences of living in Iceland, and his feel for the country’s history and culture make his thrillers utterly compelling, and his translations from Icelandic of the series Dark Iceland by Ragnar Jónasson and Reykjavik Noir by Lilja Sigurðardóttir are truly authentic gems for English readers.

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The stars of the panel were as follows: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the undisputed Queen of Icelandic Noir (her twelve books are published in English if I’m correct) and the Crown Prince Ragnar Jónasson (author of two successful series of crime fiction and a translator of Agatha Christie into Icelandic). Antti Tuomainen, the award-winning copywriter whose third novel The Healer brought him fame. The novel Dark As My Heart (2013) prompted his recognition as King of Helsinki Noir. The Man Who Died (aka Fargo meets mushroom entrepreneurs) makes him officially the funniest man in Europe, especially as the book is available in 29 countries. Finally Will Dean, granted the title for this session of Sir Will, Knight of the Swedish Forest, where he writes and lives in harmony with nature and makes videos on the art and craft of writing for his YouTube channel, occasionally wielding an axe to open boxes with his own books Dark Pines and Red Snow. Third novel Black River will be out next year.

It’s interesting to understand how the authors feel about Nordic Noir and whether they set out to write in this genre. As Will lives in a forest, he admits that he didn’t know what he was writing, apart from focusing on a story from his head: an image of overbearing overgrown forest and a woman with a hearing aid in a creepy location. He was inspired by Stephen King and wanted to recreate a similar landscape. He feels he’s becoming more Nordic now but does not particularly feel part of any tradition. Ragnar wasn’t aware of the Nordic Noir concept. He had read murder mysteries as a child but stayed away from Scandinavian crime which didn’t hold his interest yet he fell in love with it when started reading Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø. In his writing strong elements of Golden Age crime exist. The latest novel Island is based on a real place with one single house. A stunning place which is very hard get to, with nowhere to anchor the boat which means that people need to jump off and climb the rocks. As four friends gather for a weekend at a hunting lodge, remembering death of one of their friends, one of them dies…

At this point the shocked audience found out what the characters were hunting for even though it isn’t mentioned in the book: puffins! A discussion ensued with a valid question: is it OK to kill something ugly, but not something cute? In the olden days Icelanders did not eat ugly fish as it was believed to have come from devil. I won’t repeat the description of the horrible method used to kill the birds but suffice it to say that no puffins were hurt in the writing process.

Yrsa didn’t grow up reading Nordic Noir either. Instead she loved horror, especially by Stephen King. She started writing children’s books and wanted to write something awful.  Antti was hugely influenced by Finnish poetry and wanted to be a poet. He started to write in the most natural way just to tell a story. After writing several very dark books he realised that he was missing humour, and hopes that Little Siberia, his darkly funny novel about love, faith and marriage will be well received. It is about meteorite falling in a north east village in Finland, and a priest who receives some very unexpected news from his  wife.

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(L to R) Karen , Antti, Ragnar, Yrsa and Will

All authors felt that it is important to get across certain issues. Yrsa believes that crime fiction is a vehicle to discuss social issues hence she looks around at what’s annoying her in the world. Shocked by the fact that the youngest person to commit suicide in Iceland was an eleven-year-old boy destroyed by bullying she decided to write The Absolution, its main topic being bullying and social media.

Will found it interesting to see impact of one industry supporting a small town, and the dynamic between two which is fascinating and toxic. Generation after generation work at the same place: if people leave the business fails, and if business fails everyone loses their job. He feels that crime fiction is a good genre for talking about social issues, even if the author tries not to put local politics in books it happens naturally as background to the story. Ragnar’s main character in Hidden Iceland series Hulda was sixty-four-years old when she appeared in the first book, and her life is told in descending order in several books. Ageism came with the story which also tried to explain why people do certain things under pressure. Antti’s The Healer published ten years ago, showed Helsinki ravaged by climate change, and The Mine, out five years ago, talked about the end of mining industry, these books were his responses to the changing world.

Violence is another unavoidable theme. Ragnar doesn’t want violence to be explicit so it must provide an interest in background decisions while Yrsa enjoys crafting imaginative murders but usually describes the aftermath of violence. Otherwise the author might be on a slippery slope when writing violence, resulting with torture porn. Will also enjoys exploring what’s happening in the community after violence, and the ripples affecting everyone. Antti thinks that violence has to serve the story and come from the character. In his last three books there is a certain satisfaction from people being stupid, doing things for the wrong reason and doing them badly. They are definitely not meticulous serial killers.

If you want to know how these themes manifest themselves in novels – just look for the latest offerings from Yrsa (The Absolution), Antti (Little Siberia), Will (Red Snow) and Ragnar (The Island).

Capital Crime was a very successful event and the organisers are already working on next year’s programme. You can sign up for the updates ahead of the 2020 festival:  https://www.capitalcrime.org.

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