Huldufólk, elves and trolls?

Refurinn / The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

It‘s a snowy day in January when a small plane lands in a tiny town east of Vatnajökull glacier. Among the passengers is a young woman from Sri Lanka who thinks she‘s there to start a new life working at the local beauty parlour. Instead she finds herself working as a cleaner in an isolated country home beneath the looming mountains of the Eastfjords, whose jagged cliffs resemble razor blades. Her new employer is Selma, an elderly woman with a difficult past, and her son Ísak.

Detective Guðgeir Fransson is now working as a security guard in the village, after being temporarily suspended from his job at the Reykjavik Police Force pending an investigation into his alleged breach of discipline. He hears rumours in the village of the disappearance of a young foreign woman that arouse his interest and he decides to start his own investigation. It’s almost as if the woman never existed.

When Sajee Gunawardena left Colombo due to a difficult family situation and decided to travel across the world to join her sister in Reykjavik, she had no idea of the challenges that would meet her at each step of the way. New fairer life in Iceland did not materialise. All stereotypes about Asian women seemed to be thrown at her, and the fact that she had a cleft palate which caused difficulty when speaking Icelandic only encouraged some people to treat her as an uneducated simpleton. Yet Sajee, coming from a culture of respecting reincarnation and holy men, and with clear distinction between good and evil spirits, still wanted to better herself and hoped that Selma and Ísak will treat her with consideration. Her story offers one perspective in The Fox. The other comes from Guðgeir, who although demoted, disappointed with himself and feeling lonely in Höfn, takes Sajee’s peculiar situation seriously and embarks on an unofficial search for her. He appreciates beliefs in huldufólk or the hidden people but essentially he believes in another human being.

At Bröttuskriður Sajee takes it all in when her new employer Selma and the farm’s closest neighbours Karl and Marta try to explain something that often proves unexplainable, and depends on perception of reality, everyday life and own experience shaped by education or lack of it, poverty, location or family history. Each of them has a different approach to dealing with the spiritual world and the supernatural or mysterious concepts such as huldufólk.

According to Karl they ‘are people like you and me. Except that they’re taller, more dignified and in every way more handsome that we humans are. They dress in shades of blue and they live in the rocks. That’s not in every rock, but just in some places. But we don’t see them. At least, most of the time we don’t, because we humans have our limits in so many ways. Our senses are very poor unless they’re carefully trained. The hidden people are usually good, unless they’re mistreated. If you harm them in any way, they’re merciless in getting their own back. Karl dismisses the idea of elves who don’t seem to exist: They’re not elves, because that’s just rubbish. Trolls don’t belong in his landscape, either. Marta disagrees with her husband’s musings designed to frighten others: These are just old folk tales that people told in the dark before we had electricity. Back then people had to have ways of explaining things they didn’t understand.

Selma’s take is the most profound and primeval. As the story unravels it becomes clear that she considers that the hidden people to have a higher consciousness and can be both very cruel and without a shred of mercy. Sometimes they come to our aid when it’s needed, but if they’re wronged then their revenge can be bitter. Yet they aren’t spirits. This last aspect was inconceivable to Sajee being brought up in a tradition of reasonable gods and spirits: thoughts of the hidden people in the rocks above the farm came vividly to mind. Karl had talked about the elf woman who could drive people mad, or even make then disappear. Yesterday she had watched as Selma had hobbled up the largest of the rocks, taking with her a pot containing the remnants of a meat soup that she tipped out into the snow. Then she had spread her arms wide and yelled at the sky above. She was convinced that the old woman had been making an offering. She herself could never use a part of an animal as an offering, and any hidden people who took meat as a sacrifice had to be truly terrible.

Many tales of the hidden people demonstrate that they help people in trouble, and also can also make unpleasant people disappear into the rocks, and when doing an uncomfortable task, they leave behind a mark difficult to erase.

Various aspects of the ancient spirit world are strongly anchored in Icelandic tradition, and many artists and authors draw on these tales. Hidden people featured in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Shadow District and in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. In Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s Betrayal another side of the spirit world is at play, different from the Icelandic outlook yet equally important to the person who believes in it.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir combines elements of Nordic and Eastern culture and folklore, and places them in the contemporary reality of the contrast between native Icelanders and immigrants. She writes passionately and with verve, weaving fascinating strands of modern harsh realism and ethereal atmosphere into a captivating psychological portrait of individuals locked into isolation, trauma and mental health. Her passion for the main characters shines throughout the novel, with the titular chained fox representing not just physical shackles but restrains of the mind as well.

The Fox, brought to the English readers by the translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates and the brave new adventurous publisher Corylus Books, is for all those who are intrigued by the Icelandic mythology and history, and who enjoy exciting twisty tales, but most of all want to become familiar with Pálsdóttir’s writing. It is a rare gem.

Death Deserved

Death Deserved is the first instalment in the international bestselling award-winning Blix and Ramm novels penned by two crime fiction giants Jørn Lier Horst (The Katharina Code, When It Grows Dark, Ordeal in William Wisting series) and Thomas Enger (Cursed in Henning Juul series). When Nullpunkt (original title) hit the Norwegian market, the readers could not get enough of the unique concept, hard-boiled action, darkness of emotions and the well-rounded characters. Add to this mix a search for a serial killer with a flair for a drama and desire for attention in the public eye, and you have a book that captures your imagination, keeps you on the edge of the seat and makes you keep looking behind your back, and yet wanting more of the dark thrills.

Of course, you cannot have a superb novel travelling across the languages without an excellent translator who honed her literary craft over the years when working on some impressive writing. Anne Bruce translated works by Anne Holt, Heine Bakkeid, Wencke Mühleisen, Merethe Lindstrøm and Lier Horst himself. Her sense of individual styles and intuitive approach to the language ensure that the narration flows without any interruptions.

In this new book the authors poured their creativity into a story about fame and its consequences, and obsession that often follows a change of someone’s status in the society. A story that is as contemporary as the rapidly changing Norwegian society, and played out in various media.

First Sonja Nordstrøm, a former long-distance runner and an outspoken personality, failed to show up at the launch of her controversial autobiography Always Number One. When a celebrity blogger Emma Ramm found about this unusual event, unusual for someone seeking being present in the spotlight, she visited Sonja’s home and discovered signs of a struggle inside, together with a big with the number ‘one’ pinned to the TV. Both concerned about the possible abduction and excited about a sensational news scoop, she manages to persuade her boss to let her delve into a new type of journalism: crime reporting. Emma feels she can offer something more than just an extensive, yet not particularly ground-breaking knowledge of famous people, and it becomes clear that she is capable of writing brilliant material on the spot and of unearthing connections that might help in the search for the killer. But I am running ahead…

Her main contact is the police officer Alexander Blix, in charge of the investigation, and although very competent and experienced, he is still deeply affected by the aftermath of a hostage situation nineteen years earlier. He killed a father of a five-year-old girl and his career took a different turn compared to that of his colleague who was with him at the time. Gard Fosse easily climbed the managerial ladder within the police force while Blix continued to overlook some procedures to establish himself as the determined man in the field. As Blix navigates the working life and also becomes a mentor to a new recruit Sofia Kovic, he again does something quite unprofessional, as for certain unexplained reason he feels compelled to share bits of information with Emma, an outsider to the real police work. Complexity of the circumstances in which they both find themselves sends the whole process into dramatic pursuit to save lives.

With the main protagonists so conflicted and the murderer setting up own rules as to who dies and who is spared, which are very complicated yet logical to a unquestionably sick mind, Death Deserved moves at the neck-breaking speed as more people are discovered missing or dead, and the tension and fear expand in equal measures. Woven into the blend of red herrings and real threats are the quests of Blix’s daughter Iselin competing on the Worthy Winner TV programme. I recommend that you get into the spectre of the celebrity culture and the criminal vultures in a new reality created by Lier Horst and Enger.

The Girl with no Heart

A boot, a hat, a lost dog, a red herring

Travelling via books is one of life’s pleasures. Discovering new places is inspirational. Reading about locations that you might have visited is even more exciting. I was attracted by a brief write-up on the cover of Marit Reiersgaard’s The Girl with no Heart / Jenta uten hjerte, published originally in 2014 by Gyldendal, and nominated for the prestigious Riverton Prize, a literary award given annually to the best Norwegian crime story. I was interested in both the premise of the novel and the references to Tranby, a small town located east of Oslo. I am aware of the area yet I was not familiar with the Obelisk and its origins but now had a chance to find out more. Here in the novel the monument features both as a crime scene and a symbol of past and modern morality, touching on the conscience of people who have lived with various secrets in their lives, and made choices according to what influenced them most or had power over their emotions.

The story begins with two separate crimes happening in close distance one winter morning. A body of a fifteen-year-old murdered Idunn Olsen has been found in the snow near the large obelisk outside the quarry in Lier. Idunn was returning from a party where something has gone wrong as police received calls from people complaining about disturbances. Afterwards the young people who had attended the party were strangely reluctant to answer any questions and as the interviews brought little useful information the search for the killer does not seem to progress much. Close by another death was reported, of an elderly woman who was discovered in a house burned to the ground. There might have been connection between two crimes due to an unexpected appearance of a local man Agnar Eriksen who had spent time in prison for an attempted murder of his mother but now on his way to freedom.

Relationship between the main detectives Verner Jacobsen and Bitte Røed evolves as the story progresses, and it is fascinating to watch how they both deal with personal and family issues, and even the ‘office politics’. Nuanced and delicately balancing on the line of attraction and respect for each other, their rapport shines light on insights into wounded souls. Verner’s anxiety after having just lost his only son Victor to cancer has huge impact on his professional approach to interviewing a young suspect Fredrik Paulsen, and then Marte Skage, a girl deeply traumatised by continuous bullying. Not only Verner is affected by the recent events but also feels troubled by not really knowing Victor properly. A theft of a hearse with the coffin on the day of the funeral shifted his personal grief into the realms of challenging police work. On the other hand, Bitte’s different attitude and a fledgling romance with Marte’s father Kristian, a journalist and a second person of interest, places her in a difficult and ultimately dangerous situation.  

With genuine compassion the author deals with disturbing subjects of long-lasting effects of bullying and of abuse with sensitivity and understanding, not shying from some upsetting aspects which give enough context to internal turmoil experienced by those mostly affected. Cruelty seems to know no bounds, especially when it is hidden under the surface of politeness, ordinary activities, or fear of being exposed. Desperate acts of self-harm remain concealed beneath and trigger emotional blackmail. Close connections within the small community add interest and drama to the portrayal of various people who know or are aware of one another, and so the shocking finale would no doubt disturb many moral compasses.  

Paul Norlen’s translation suits the flow of the initial measured tempo and reflections on the widely understood meaning of life, until the pressure of the investigation grows and intensified emotions are getting closer to exploding. Reiersgaard’s elegant confident style comes across very well, with some phrases describing the mood instantly: ‘He knew that he had winter in his face and heavy bags under his eyes.’

Drammen. Ypsilon Bridge that Detective Verner Jacobsen crosses on the way to his work

The landscape plays an important role and Reiersgaard expertly maintains tension by describing the neighbourhood that she knows so well. The town of Tranby or the police station in nearby Drammen does not feature strongly in the Norwegian crime fiction that has been translated into English. Karin Fossum’s series about Inspector Konrad Sejer is set in the neighbourhoods around Oslo and in Drammen though I do not think that name is explicitly mentioned. As Marit Reiersgaard puts this place firmly on the map of crime-worthy locations in the contemporary literature, I would strongly recommend that you get to know the girl with no heart here and the other girls that become a focus of intriguing mysteries.

Valhalla: Legend of Thor

Synopsis: No man, woman or child may defy the gods. When Thor and Loki seek refuge in the home of mortals, the youngest son fails to heed a warning from the gods. As atonement for the family’s sins, the gods take the two youngest children under their wing and embark on an epic adventure from Midgard to Valhalla that will see them stare down ruthless giants, barbaric gods and the dreaded wolf Fenrir. 

Brand new Valhalla is directed by Fenar Ahmad, a Danish filmmaker of Iraqi origin, known for the excellent Darkland, a movie about a successful doctor who loses his little brother in a gang-related assault and then gives up his privileged life to become a masked warrior and avenge his brother’s death. In that role was Dar Salim, a familiar face to the fans of Borgen, The Bridge and Dicte: Crime Reporter. Here Ahmad moves from the modern-day issues happening in Denmark and takes on a classic Norse myth of Thor, the God of Thunder.

Two siblings Røskva, played by the incredible young actress Cecilia Loffredo, and her brother Tjalfe (Saxo Moltke-Leth) are taken by two gods Thor and Loki to Valhalla. The youngers know their fate as slaves is sealed but they do not expect how terribly they will be treated during the treacherous travel and when they finally arrive. Tjalfe feels unhappy and struggles silently, doing some pretty disgusting chores, yet he believes that the opportunity to serve gods comes once in a lifetime and only to the chosen few. Although loving her brother to the end of the world and back, literally, Røskva refuses to accept such bad treatment especially as the deities seem to have lost their godly respectable demeanour and engage in pointless name calling, drinking games and general boring unproductive time-wasting. Instead their conduct should be the guidance for the mortals and counterbalance for the Giants, the merciless barbarians, and that is exactly what the girl wants. So she finds her inner strength and challenges the powerful yet resigned Odin, and earns respect of Thor who reluctantly begins to admire her. Roland Møller’s thunderous personality as reckless Thor and his hammer-wielding abilities are to die for, and he becomes a fairly sensible god at the end of the emotional journey. Inspired by the Viking queen-in-the-making, the Valhalla goddesses, mostly silent, also spring into action to defend their empire together with two young mortals and against terrifying giants and the legendary Fenrir.

The intense and dangerous moments and the battle scenes, the visuals of darkness and otherworldly forces create a great atmosphere where you can lose yourself and experience a new brutal reality, based on the ancient rules and whims of supernatural powers. It is a very enjoyable fantasy as the story dips into the wealth of the Norse myths, with quite amazing special effects conveying the mood of fear and despair, and occasional wonder. The film is shot in Danish which adds to the mystery but of course English subtitles make the tale understandable. Just some advice before you venture into Valhalla: dancing with weirdly attractive Death is never a good idea, and watch out for the enormous majestic wolf, and the fish soup. The first one might scare you to untimely death but the second will definitely kill you.

All photos courtesy of Signature Entertainment.

Team Gunnhildur

‘You’re trying to be offensive.’

I don’t have to try. It comes naturally,’ Gunna told him. ‘Especially when people are economical with the truth.

Quentin Bates’ latest novel Cold Malice focuses on two strands: suicide of an enigmatic artist Áskell Hafberg, and the apparent drowning of his wife Birna five years earlier, and the under-the-radar return to Iceland of Ingvar Sturlaugsson, a man considered dead after the Thai tsunami of 2004. Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is big on compassion and even bigger on justice. She is of the same school of investigation as Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur, and will turn every stone until she finds an answer or two to a case that bothers her.

Bates’ convincing plots, precise building up of the tension and effortless narration are mixed with dry sense of humour and in-depth knowledge of Iceland. His novels have contemporary feel with elements of history and understanding of the ways the society works. He has honed his style over the years, thanks to his vast experience as a writer, journalist, and co-founder of IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. As a translator he enabled the Icelandic authors such as Gudlaugur Arason, Indriði G. Thorsteinsson, Sigurjón Magnússon, Ragnar Jónasson and Lilja Sigurðardóttir to enter the worldwide English-speaking market.

I am absolutely delighted to share Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s reflections on Quentin Bates:

‘Quentin doesn’t eat the seared sheep´s head. In fact he makes a funny face while he watches his wife and myself gobble down this local delicacy with a nice helping of mashed potatoes and green beans. And that funny face reminds me that he isn’t an Icelander. In other situations I tend to forget because he is Icelandic in most other ways. That said, many Icelanders don´t eat the seared sheep´s head, especially not the younger ones that grew up with the options of eating food that is actually nice.

My books are translated into many languages so I know translators. I have worked with so many of them but Quentin is not your usual translator. He has never studied translation or Icelandic but relies solely on his natural talent, of which he has plenty. And because he is a writer himself, he knows his crime fiction in and out so his translations benefit from that. Because translating is not only about knowing a language and then re-writing a text into your own language, it is about culture. And that´s why I tend to forget that Quentin isn’t Icelandic. Because he not only knows the culture, he has lived it. Being a fisherman on the turbulent seas around Iceland, having family here, eating (some of) the strange food for years on end has shaped his character into being so much like these few strange people that inhabit this island.

There is a saying in Iceland:  Glöggt er gests augað (sharp is the guest´s eye) that means that guests sometimes see things that locals are not noticing anymore or take for granted. And that is the thing that makes Quentin so special: he is a local Icelander but at the same time he is also still a guest with a sharp eye that takes in things that an Icelander normally wouldn’t.

In his books about Gunna (detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir) Quentin is at his best both as a local Icelander but also a sharp-eyed guest. Icelanders read those books and feel they are written by a local but English speakers would also find enough explanation of cultural and natural phenomena to enjoy the “Icelandicness” of the story.  I always look very much forward to a new book from Quentin and I won´t be able to wait until Cold Malice is published in Icelandic, I will have to read it first in English as soon as it´s out. Gunna is one of my favourite crime fiction characters and nobody that gets to know her will regret it.’

You can read further thoughts on Cold Malice via the following links:

Nordic Noir Blog

Cafe Thinking

The Book Trail

Novel Heights

Raven Crime Reads

Mrs. Peabody Investigates

NordicNoir Atlas

It is no secret that Newcastle Noir festival began as a love letter to Iceland. In May 2014 Jacky Collins aka Dr Noir chatted about books with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and Quentin Bates whose combined experience in writing, translating and co-founding the IcelandNoir festival sown the seeds for a bigger future event. No photographic evidence from me. I have joined as a volunteer the following year. The appetite for the writing from the cold climate was growing as were the ambitions of the festival organisers.

Disclaimer: some introductory wording about the authors comes from the relevant festival programmes 2015 – 2019 and might seem out of date yet I wanted to bring back some memories. Over the years the circle of authors and their works expanded and so did the knowledge about their worlds. Now in spring of 2020 no introductions are needed.

In 2015 Iceland was represented again by Ragnar Jónasson and Quentin Bates (author and translator from Icelandic) at the Crime in Translation panel. Sweden and Finland joined.

NN2015 – Cilla and Rolf Börjlind 

Cilla and Rolf Börjlind are Sweden’s most praised script writers of crime and thrillers, and also bestselling authors (Spring Tide and Third Voice). They have written 26 Martin Beck scripts for film and television, and most recently the scripts for Arne Dahl’s A-group series. In 2004 and 2009 Swedish television showed their long crime series The Grave and The Murders.

Finland in a form of Kati Hiekkapelto shook us. The bestselling author, punk singer, performance artist and, formerly special-needs teacher, living on the island of Hailuto in northern Finland, has taught immigrants and lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia which inspired her crime novel The Hummingbird. The sequel The Defenceless was translated into English by David Hackston.

Norway arrived in 2016. Gunnar Staalesen was born in Bergen in 1947 and is the author of over 20 titles, which have been published in 24 countries and sold over four million copies. Twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007, starring the popular Norwegian actor Trond Epsen Seim.

NN2016 – Gunnar Staalesen and Mari Hannah

That year Iceland brought incredible talent of four Ice Queens:

Sólveig Pálsdóttir, lives in Reykjavík, and is the author of three best-selling crime novels: the first two The Actor and The Righteous have been translated into German. The third Spotless was published in Iceland last spring.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir is an Icelandic crime-writer and playwright. Her first novel Steps was published in 2009 and later translated into German. Her second novel Forgiveness was published a year later, and the latest Trapped was out in October 2015.

Jónína Leósdóttir played a key role in establishing The Icelandic Women’s Literary Prize, and is the author of a dozen plays, ten novels, two biographies and numerous articles. She writes both for adults and teenagers. Among the awards she has received for her work is the poetry award Ljóđstafur Jóns úr Vör, the IBBY Iceland Award for her novels for teenagers, and playwriting competition prizes.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is the bestselling and award-winning Icelandic crime author of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series as well as several stand-alone thrillers. She made her crime fiction debut in 2005 with Last Rituals, the first instalment in the Thóra series. The latest book to be published in the UK is The Undesired, preceded by the Award-winning Silence Of The Sea and Someone To Watch Over Me, chosen by the Sunday Times as the best crime novel published in the UK in 2013.

NN2016 – Antti Tuomainen, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Dr Noir and Sólveig Pálsdóttir

Finland was represented by Kati Hiekkapelto again, and by Antti Tuomainen, the award-winning author of five novels. He has been called ‘The King of Helsinki Noir’ by the Finnish press. In 2011 his third novel The Healer was awarded the Clue Award for Best Finnish Crime Novel and has subsequently been published in 27 countries. His fourth novel Dark as My Heart has been voted the best crime novel of the past decade by the readers of a Finnish crime fiction magazine.

Sweden returned in 2017 with stars. Camilla Grebe has written four crime novels with her sister Asa Traff, featuring psychologist Siri Bergman. The first two were nominated for Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. Camilla has also written the popular Moscow Noir trilogy with Paul Leander-Engstrom. Last year she published her first novel as a solo author, the psychological thriller The Ice Beneath Her. Duo Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist write under the pseudonym Erik Axl Sund. Their trilogy The Crow Girl made the New York Post’s Best Summer Reads list in 2016 and was The Observer’s Thriller of the Month. They’ve been working on the second in their Melancholia series, the first being Glass Bodies.  

The honorary Swede Johana Gustawsson, the co-author of a bestseller On se retrouvera published in France. Her first solo novel Block 46 introduced criminal profiler Emily Roy and French true-crime writer Alexis Castells and was due to be published in May 2017.

NN2017 – Johana Gustawsson, Camilla Grebe and Erik Axl Sund

Norway introduced two legends.

Kjell Ola Dahl is an acclaimed Norwegian author, one of he first in the Nordic Noir genre. His debut novel was published in 1993 and he has now written eleven books, mostly crime with a psychological interest. By that year four of his novels have been translated into English. Thomas Enger made his debut with the crime novel Burned in 2009, which became an international sensation before publication. It was the first of five books featuring journalist Henning Juul which delves into the depths of Oslo’s underbelly.

Also, Denmark appeared on the horizon with Greenland in the background thanks to Nina von Staffeldt. Her debut novel Frozen Evidence published in 2016 was awarded Best Danish debut crime novel 2016 by the Danish Crime Academy. The sequel novel was planned for publication in 2017.

NN2017 – Thomas Enger, Kjell Ola Dahl, Nina von Staffeldt, Antti Tuomainen and Quentin Bates

Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden were back in 2018, with Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Quentin Bates, Antti Tuomainen, Thomas Enger, Kjell Ola Dahl and Johana Gustawsson respectively, before the final Nordic explosion the following year.

NN2018 – Thomas Enger, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, ES and Kjell Ola Dahl
NN2018 – writers and their translators: Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Quentin Bates, Dr Noir, Roxanne Bouchard and David Warriner

In 2019 the festival was held at the new venue, with more exciting latest voices from Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.

NN2019 – Masters of the genre: Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey

Another honorary Swede Will Dean, author of Dark Pines and Red Snow, studied Law at LSE, and worked many varied jobs in London, before settling in rural Sweden with his wife. He built a wooden house in a boggy forest clearing, where he compulsively reads and writes.

NN2019 – Antti Tuomainen, MJ Arlidge, ES, Miriam V Owen and Will Dean

Christoffer Petersen writes crime books and thrillers set in Greenland. His main protagonists include retired Greenlandic Police Constable David Maratse, Commissioner Petra Piitalaat Jensen, and the first female sledge patroller Fenna Brongaard. Christoffer lives in Denmark and has spent 7 years in Greenland, including a year teaching at Greenland’s Police Academy.

NN2019 – Christoffer Petersen and G.D. Abson

Óskar Guðmundsson’s debut novel Hilma was chosen as the best criminal novel published 2015, received the Icelandic crime fiction award The Blood Drop, and was Iceland´s contribution to the Glass Key, the Nordic Crime Fiction Award in 2017. The Icelandic production company Sagafilm has secured the rights to adapt it for television.

NN2019 – Óskar Guðmundsson, Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Quentin Bates

The class of 2020 should have included new personalities appearing together with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Johana Gustawsson, Thomas Enger and Kjell Ola Dahl. Due to the global pandemic the festival has been postponed. However, the literary life continues behind the scenes and online, including this #blogtour and via electronic and paper books. Norwegian Marit Reiersgård recently spoke online of the fine Easter tradition in her country, tradition that involves hiding away in a cabin and reading crime fiction. The Girl with no Heart is her only novel translated into English so far. Sif Sigmarsdóttir, writer and journalist from Iceland, living in London, is the author of a feminist Nordic noir thriller for young adults called The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake.  Eva Björg Ægisdóttir‘s debut novel The Creak on the Stairs won the Blackbird Award, a crime-writing prize hosted by prolific well-known Icelandic authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson, and it is out now.  

I do hope for the appearance of these three writers at #NN2021 to continue the Nordic Who’s Who in Newcastle

Steffen Jacobsen: Retribution

To temporarily and mentally move away from the current global situation I reached for a book that has been published in February 2016, four years ago by Quercus.

On a warm autumn afternoon, Tivoli Gardens – Denmark’s largest amusement park – is devastated by a terrorist attack. 1,241 people are killed. The unknown bomber is blown to bits; the security forces have no leads.

It left the country in total shock. One year later those behind the massacre are still at large. Detective Lene Jensen, dealing with personal tragedy, becomes entangled in the web of secrets threatening the national security.

Retribution is set a year after the most horrendous atrocity in Copenhagen. One September day a lone bomber blew himself and more than thousand people in popular Tivoli Gardens, Denmark’s largest amusement park. The devastation shook the entire nation to its core and shocked the police who have no leads whatsoever. Nobody claimed responsibility. Frustration and anger are the main feelings in the overtired police force who don’t rule out another devastating attack but seem powerless to prevent it.

Superintendent Lene Jensen, forty-five-year old, burnt-out and surviving on a cocktail of alcohol and sleeping pills, is dealing with the effects of personal tragedy. To compensate for not spotting signs shown by a suicidal member of her family, she volunteered at the helpline to support others where she became close in a way with a young Muslim woman. Their formal telephone-only relationship took a different dimension when she received a call from terrified Ain, begging for help as she was being followed. Reluctantly Lene agreed to meet Ain at the neutral train station but by the time she had arrived there the woman was dead. Shaken by this turn of events Lene started own investigation into this death, and her initial findings suggested that Ain was unknowingly part of a secret service research project, under the patronage of the charismatic and extremely well-connected consultant psychiatrist Irene Adler. As Lene digs deeper, she’s silenced by her bosses. Even her allies are convinced that her actions pose a serious threat to national security. When the fanatical Kim Thomsen from the Danish Security and Intelligence Service appears amidst these tense circumstances, Lene realises that the truth might be the most dangerous thing to uncover. Thomsen seems unhinged but protected by his superiors. Michael Sander, elusive secretive ‘security consultant’ becomes Lene’s only friend.

The subject of terrorism affecting Denmark has been explored in TV series and in books, yet this is the most terrifying vision yet. The orthopaedic surgeon by day, Steffen Jacobsen can definitely write! He puts an alternative perspective as he tries to get into the terrorists’ heads and understand  reasons for the growing numbers of suicide bombers wanting to destabilise the West. He also creates strong interesting and believable female characters: Lene’s powerful brilliant boss Charlotte Falste; the psychiatrist Irene Adler, and also Nazeera, the Arab woman whose intelligence, strength and skills are sought by various adversaries. In a context of the bigger-picture investigation and personal power-play all women are memorable and credible. However, my sympathy lies with Lene who will not stop: a good cop and a decent human being, reminding me of another fictional Danish heroine who first graced the TV screens before appearing in the books: Sara Lund with her uncompromising determination, bordering on obsession to uncover the truth. Inspector Malin Fors created by Mons Kallentoff is in the same league where dedication to the job borders on self-destruction.

This fast-paced unstoppable thriller, translated by Charlotte Barslund, never lets you pause to take in all that’s happening. Excellent novel, considering the fairly recent terrorism-filled atmosphere in Europe where only the best eagle-eyed security consultants, analysts and spies could untangle the webs of connections. To be honest this is a terrifying prospect; however, an engaging gripping story. Highly recommended for the fans of Norwegian Jo Nesbø, and fellow Dane Jussi-Adler Olsen, and anyone who enjoys the edge-of the-seat suspense.

A taste of BalkaNoir

Noir is a word that certainly appeals to us. Add an adjective or a location and hey presto! a new universe of literary possibilities opens. But what do we know about a mysteriously called BalkaNoir? Is the World Book Day a good reason to venture into the unknown?

Some lucky English readers had a chance to sample BalkaNoir at NewcastleNoir crime fiction festival in 2019 when three Romanian authors Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and Bogdan Hrib shared their enthusiasm, creativity and books. Their writing is original and brings a new interesting perspective to the European table.

Anamaria Ionescu, a journalist and a writer, has been working for the Romanian Broadcasting Company for over twenty years.  She had her literary debut in 2008 in the literary section of a national publication with a short story called Travelling Family. In 2014 she published the first novel of her Sergiu Manta mystery and thriller series Code Name: Arkon. The series keeps track of an IT specialist also a biker and a rocker, whose destiny pushes him into being an assassin.

Zodiac, the second novel in the Sergiu Manta series, was out in 2016:

When investigator Sergiu Manta is handed the investigation into a series of bizarre murders, he has no idea what he’s getting involved in as he has to work with regular detective Marius Stanescu who has his own suspicions about the biker he has been told to work with, and wants to get to the truth. The twists and turns of the story take both men from the city of Bucharest to the mountains of rural Romania, and back.

Teodora Matei is the deputy chief editor of the online magazine Gazeta SF. Her debut novel in print was The Butterfly Man (cyberpunk-crime, 2015), the first volume of the trilogy with the same name, written together with Lucian-Dragoș Bogdan, a Romanian SF/ romance/ thriller author.

Living Candles:

The discovery of a woman close to death in a city basement sends Bucharest police officers Anton Iordan and Sorin Matache on a complex chase through the city as they seek to identify the victim. As they try to track down the would-be murderer, they find a macabre trail of missing women, and realise that this isn’t the first time the killer has struck. Iordan and Matache hit one dead end after another, until they decide they would have to take a chance that could prove deadly.

Stylistically the novels differ: Zodiac is pacey, impatient, international, with a touch of a Bond fantasy. Living Candles is much more low-key, quieter, understated. And dangerous. Both books, however, are strongly anchored within the recent history of Romania which demonstrates itself in the social attitudes and past perceptions of women. Female characters seem to be in the background of the society, essential yet not recognised for their own abilities. There’s a hint of fury in a female assassin and eagerness of a young pathologist to make a mark in a man’s world. Nevertheless, machismo rules on most of the fronts. Anamaria Ionescu and Teodora Matei observe what happens around them, and are fully aware of all changes.

English, Icelandic and Romanian connections: Quentin Bates, Teodora Matei, Anamaria Ionescu, Bogdan Hrib and Marina Sofia (world literature champion) at NewcastleNoir 2019

Bogdan Hrib’s varied career encompassed the professions of photographer, journalist, lecturer and book publisher as a co-founder of Tritonic Publishing Phillips. He has been instrumental in bringing other Romanian crime writers into English publication. He also contributed short stories to and edited several crime fiction collective books such as: Noir de Bucuresti, GastroNOIR (including contributions from Teodora Matei as well) and Noir de Timisoara.

His debut as a crime fiction writer came in 2007 with Filiera greceasca / The Greek Connection:

A Greek holiday abruptly interrupted by the murder of a Russian girl. The primary suspect is a Romanian man, and when journalist Stelian Munteanu happens to be nearest person to the crime scene, he soon gets pulled into the sordid tale where nothing is what it seems. A pursuit from Greece to Rome, Bucharest, Vienna and finally across France, Munteanu finds himself entering the dark world of diamond smuggling and stolen furs, where a mysterious ex-KGB agent knows it all.

And the Nordic connection?

Bogdan Hrib said that BalkaNoir couldn’t be more different than NordicNoir regarding the social context as Romania is still trying to come to terms with massive changes of moving from capitalism to totalitarian state and back to capitalism. It is all about survival and adjusting to the new reality. Yet Romanian Noir looks up to Nordic Noir. But even if the concept of the crime fiction is different to what we’ve become familiar with coming from Nordic and Scandinavian countries, the essence of the writing is the same: good gripping narrations, interesting characters, search for answers.

Bogdan Hrib representing Romania at IcelandNoir in Reykjavik in 2014

I feel that this is a beginning of something much bigger and BalkaNoir (or RomanianNoir?) is just about to conquer the world.

Jo Nesbø’s Knife

Harry Hole wakes up with blood on his hands and no memory of what has happened the night before. Soon he has to deal with the most personal case yet to catch the killer who has completely destroyed his life.

If you are familiar The Thirst / Tørst you will know that Harry Hole didn’t have an easy time (my review via Crime Review is here). Hence the consequences of different events following the vampirist case in the previous novel The Thirst reverberate through Knife. One of them is that Harry Hole had killed Valentin Gjesrsten who unknown to him was Svein Finne’s son and so revenge seems to be a strong motive here.

The rapist and murderer Svein Finne, called Fiancé, made his victims pregnant and killed them when they didn’t give birth to his child. Harry was a young detective and worked tirelessly to put him behind the bars. He succeeded. But that was ages ago and now the most infamous serial killer is free, and hungry to pick up where he had left. His methods haven’t changed and are still horrendous. Women of Oslo aren’t safe. The first victim is a lonely teacher Dagny, too scared to report rape to the police, especially as Finne imposes his own rules, plus has an uncanny ability to know all about women he targets.

I have read nearly all of the Harry Hole books and thought that the maverick brilliant damaged detective had to deal with enough trauma that his creator Jo Nesbø had thrown at him over the years. Being the alcoholic serial-killers-catcher, fighting personal demons, losing the plot on professional level, always going against the grain… I didn’t expect that he could cope with any more pain. However, again he has no choice but to follow his notorious gut feeling and face his darkest most personal case yet. Back in his own flat, drinking himself stupid, suspended from work and desperately missing his wife Rakel who had thrown him out about three months earlier. When he wakes up with blood on his hands and no memory of what has happened the night before it means that things can only go downhill. The memory lapses are nothing new yet in this particular situation even he is shocked and overwhelmed by the complete amnesia. Soon he needs to handle the most devastating murder, shattering his life into millions of hurting pieces, and destroying future of Oleg, Rakel’s son who came to treat him as his own father. Confrontation with Finne is on the cards.

Jo Nesbø writes like a rock star that he is, creating a dangerous world, populated by fully shaped psychologically believable characters, and confident to push his hero deeper into the crisis that would have killed any normal human being. Harry, deeply flawed and existing on the cocktail of strong alcohol and savage emotions, still attracts female adulation and touches of respect from those who understand how he operates, what triggers his methods, how he will walk through fire and water to find the murderer. Even if he becomes the suspect of the murder. And yet, I wanted so much for him to survive, to find the killer, to find a tiny bit of peace and some justice.

Knife is brutal, raw and nerve wrecking. It focuses on manipulation and the outrageous choices that people have to make. It has everything you would want from a thriller so confidently penned by the best-selling author. Dubious moral choices. Weak leaders and hypocritical lawyers. Domestic dramas and power fights. Different type of violence, less graphic but equally shocking, Quite phenomenal considering this is Harry’s twelve outing, intense, both fast paced and occasionally full of slow-motion melancholy. Neil Smith translated this Norse tragedy in four acts superbly.

Jo Nesbø and his band Di Derre on stage during Elvestivalen 2019. Drammen, Norway

Hardback was published by Harvill Secker in July 2019, and paperback was out last month.

What Are You Like

‘Sadie had stepped out of her comfort zone but it was cold out there so she went back in.’

What Are You Like published by Postbox Press, the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press.

Shelley Day’s debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon published in 2014 took on challenging subject. A killer released from prison had returned home to a decaying, deserted boarding house choked with weeds and foreboding. Memories of strange rituals, gruesome secrets and shame hang heavy in the air, exerting a brooding power over young Stella Moon. She was eager to restart her life but first had to confront the ghosts of her macabre family history and her own shocking crime. All seemed ambiguous as guilt, paranoia and manipulation spun a tangled web of truth and lies. Stella Moon was certain of only one thing: that she had killed her own mother.

The psychological aspects and darkness of mind weave their way into the collection of short stories aptly titled What Are You Like where Stella appears again. But is she the same person? The interlinked vivid tales are akin to tiny gems, all individually polished and shiny and separate in their own right yet fitting perfectly together, creating an unusual exploration of themes close to anyone’s heart: love, loss, family, friendship. As the author continues to travel through time, social attitudes and own reflections on life and world, various voices enter and add to the intricate unforgettable portraits of situations and emotions. Such as the complex relationship between two ‘chalk and cheese’ sisters Sadie and Cara and that incomprehensive untamed monster of depression that engulfs one of them:

‘I used to wonder whether blood actually was thicker than water. Because when you think of it, families are where shit happens. I mean that seriously, you’ve more likely to be murdered by in your family than in some dark alleyway, more likely to be killed by a rello than by a deranged stranger. I mean blood can literally be blood.’

Deftly rendered thoughts and images bring a strong sense of various Norwegian and North England’s locations, detailed depictions of distinctive areas, and the dialects representative of social groups. Imaginative miniature visual masterpieces surprise with metaphors: ‘And once again the bag is packed; there, on the floor, it gapes its wound, its innards spilling out. Or vulval, it’s private parts exposed to my current indecision.’

Some of the stories set in Norway show deep passion for the generosity and inspiration of the landscape, changing seasons and the enteral power of nature. My favourite tale must be Svarverkjær which is a delicate yet compelling stunning love story between a small wooden house named Svarverkjær and the Elk; story about passage of time, of natural cycles of nature; of care and understanding how humans, animals and objects fit within the specific environment. It is touching and moving and so sensitively drawn you can sense the sunshine, hear the rain on the decrepit roof, tremble in the freezing cold, and taste the memories of summer just as the Elk eats the fallen apples and the old house worries about the huge majestic animal losing its status in the ancient forest. Pure poetry!

From her prose you can glean the way Shelley Day feels about the eternal want for learning from the greats and their mastery of words, her passion for language and its mysteries. To slightly paraphrase her own writing: ‘You always like to re-read on holiday because a different time a different place makes the words entirely new’, this collection will be calling you back.