His first crime novel was published in 2011 as Frozen Out in the UK, Frozen Assets in the US. It is set in present-day Iceland in the months leading up to the collapse of the banks. 2012 saw the publication of the second novel in the series. Cold Comfort is set in an Iceland coming to terms with the recession.
The latest book is Chilled to the Bone,
set in post-recession Iceland and the depths of winter.
Q You mention somewhere that you have always been a big reader. Is reading as necessary to you now as it was before you started writing?
I wanted to see if I could do it. I had written some non-fiction stuff before and have a day job as a journalist (no, nothing even remotely glamorous or sensational), and saw fiction as a challenge, and I like a challenge. I’m still not sure if it’s a mug’s game. To be quite brutal about it, the odds against getting published to start with are steep, and the odds against staying published for a mid-list writer aren’t much better. On the other hand, dreaming up murder and intrigue is a great way to spend your days.
Writing fiction was also a release. I used to work for an editor with an incredibly rigid style. Everything in the magazine had to look the same and any kind of creative flair was firmly discouraged. So Frozen Out was partly born of that frustration of having to write that turgid, formulaic stuff. I later found out that one of my colleagues was doing the same thing; going home and writing fiction after spending all day writing for an editor who was firmly anchored in 1978.
Iceland isn’t an easy place to live in, especially as we didn’t live in comfortable urban Reykjavík. It’s at the edge of the world and although it is undeniably beautiful, somehow that passes you by when your car is buried past the roof in a snowdrift or when there are only a few short hours of daylight and the sun doesn’t actually rise at all.
I read the papers online and listen to ‘Steam’ radio at home, so that keeps me in touch, and there’s rarely a day when I don’t speak to someone in Iceland (skype is a godsend). I have a far clearer idea of what’s going on in Icelandic politics than what’s going on in Westminster.
It’s also important to spend time there and there’s no substitute for speaking to people face-to-face. I don’t do a great deal of proper research, but I find it’s important to spend time there, with Steam radio on in the background, read the papers, chat to the fishermen at the quay, taxi drivers, the coppers and minor criminals I know, listen to what people are saying in the Co-op or the bank, take in the internecine local politics and the petty feuds going on, all that kind of stuff – and then write about it later.
I get a good few complaints about the complex names and how difficult they are to cope with. The books are set in Iceland and people there aren’t called Jim and Sally. The names aren’t what we are used to and there’s no getting around that, regardless of my efforts to keep them as accessible when I could easily have made them so much more complex.
Anyhow, I decided to give a character in Chilled to the Bone a name so awkward that I defy any non-Icelander to pronounce it. But I did give him a suitably short nickname, so the real name only has to appear once or twice. I had expected my editor to ask for it to be changed, but she didn’t say anything, so it stayed in.
There are Nordic stereotypes that sometimes ring true. Danes have an irreverent sense of humour that the other Nordic nations don’t have in quite such abundance. I’d best not be too forthright about the national stereotypes – but they all make fun of each other.
It’s not just the crime fiction that’s gloomy. Literature does get taken very seriously and maybe that has spilled over into their crime fiction. In reality they are no more gloomy than we Brits are and in some ways they are less hung up and serious. They do know how to have a party when they put their minds to it. So, no. The image of gloom and misery that comes across in much Nordic fiction isn’t representative of the way they are.