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some introductory wording about the authors comes from the relevant festival programmes 2015 – 2019 and might seem out of date yet I wanted to bring back some memories.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 https://newcastlenoir.co.uk/programme/

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.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The famous Swedish scientist Professor Balder contacts the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, dedicated to exposing corruption and abuse, but within hours he is murdered and Blomkvist finds himself in the centre of the police investigation. The genius hacker Lisbeth Salander is hot on the trail of the cyber criminals who threatened Balder.

As I am musing over a completely different book which focuses on Stieg Larsson and his lost files relating to the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (review of Jan Stocklassa’s The Man Who Played With Fire to follow) my thoughts go back to reading the first of a ‘new’ Millennium novels written by someone other than the original creator of the now legendary Lisbeth Slander fighting right-wing villains.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked Hornets’ Nest were reissued by MacLehose Press in June 2015, ahead of publishing Lagercrantz’s book in August the same year.

Following overexcited publicity, rumours and secrecy surrounding translation and publication of The Girl In The Spider’s Web I was hoping that aside from creating the outrage that David Lagercrantz took on the iconic modern-day super-heroine, that the novel will live up to the expectations of Lisbeth Salander’s fans. And thanks Odin (Norse mythology), it’s a good story. In fact, it’s really great, especially if you don’t compare it with Larsson’s legacy which is in a different world / era – which I won’t.

The premise is relatively modest. A renowned Swedish scientist Professor Frans Balder returned from America to his homeland. Living like a recluse, he has recently started caring for his autistic eight-year-old son August and recognises that the boy is a savant, with extraordinary mathematical and artistic skills. Balder fears for his life, after his computers have been hacked by a dangerous group called Spiders, headed by Thanos (supervillain of Marvel Comics origin), yet he refused protection offered by the secret police Säpo. One night he deletes years of his Artificial Intelligence research and contacts the uncompromising investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is currently stuck in a professional rut. A couple of hours later the professor is murdered.

Blomkvist also finds out that a genius female hacker has been in touch with Balder, aside from breaking into the most secure computer systems of the American National Security Agency. That could only be ‘Wasp’ (comic book superhero): Lisbeth Salander. She is following her own agenda, tracking her vicious powerful twin sister. Salander’s character seems to take the centre stage, and she is as Larsson’s original creation as I can remember. At first Blomkvist appears more as her sidekick – though those roles evolve naturally as the investigation into the murder progresses. Full of contradictions, Salander is the fighter for justice: especially for the abused women and children. She’s ruthless and merciless yet compassionate, breaking every possible rule, and I want her to succeed. And so does Blomkvist.

David Lagercrantz signs copies of The Girl… in London

The first half of the book concentrated on laying the foundations and delivering a sophisticated tractate on the AI concept, explaining the most intricate details of the cyber world/ underworld security, and painting a political and business backdrop for the troubled Millennium magazine. And then suddenly it takes off! I couldn’t read fast enough from the point when Blomkvist realises that the exquisite yet unsettling drawings found at the murder scene are in fact drawn by August, a witness to his father’s murder. It was like a slow climb up the ski slope in preparation for the longest ever ski flying in the air where you cannot get out for the fear of missing out while being targeted by the cyber and real criminals at the same time. Lagercrantz’s brilliant craftsmanship is visible in characterisation and plotting narrative of the novel, translated masterfully by George Goulding who not only conveyed the atmosphere of this thriller but also managed to make the mind-boggling (for me) issues of cyber espionage and the mathematical algorithms understandable. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, fast and pacey, violent and intelligent, is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.

Reykjavikin Murtomies / Cold Steal by Quentin Bates

Spot the ‘odd’ one out

I am sure you have heard of Quentin Bates in one or all his guises: journalist, translator, writer and one of the founders of IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. Immersed in Icelandic culture and nature Bates effortlessly brings various aspects of this fascinating country to English readers as he translates technical texts, classics (Gudlaugur Arason’s Bowline and Indriði G. Thorsteinsson’s Cab 79) and crime fiction. Thanks to him we are lucky to read Ragnar Jónasson’s atmospheric Dark Iceland series consisting of Snowblind, Nightblind, Blackout, Rupture and Whiteout, and Lilja Sigurdardottir’s stunning Reykjavik Noir trilogy: Snare, Trap, Cage.

However, I want to draw your attention to his own series of novels set in and around Reykjavik, featuring Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, also known as Gunna, the no-nonsense down-to-earth detective with excellent skills, solid experience and a dry sense of humour. Gunna featured in Frozen Out / Assets, Cold Comfort, Chilled to the Bone, Cold Steal, Summerchill, Thin Ice, Winterlude and Cold Breath. Here are my earlier reviews of Cold Breath via Crime Review pages and Summerchill via Euro Crime blog spot but of course I would encourage you to find out for yourself about Quentin Bates and read his books https://graskeggur.com.

And I have one copy of Reykjavikin Murtomies (Cold Steal) translated by Raimo Salokangas into Finnish and recently published in Finland by Blue Moon.

A successful housebreaker who leaves no traces and no clues as he strips Reykjavík homes of their valuables has been a thorn in the police’s side for months. But when one night the thief breaks into the wrong house, he finds himself caught in a trap as the stakes are raised far beyond anything he could have imagined. Gunnhildur Gísladóttir of the Reykjavík police finds herself frustrated at every  turn as she searches for a victim who has vanished from the scene of the crime, and wonders if it could be linked to the murders of two businessmen with dubious reputations that her bosses are warning her to keep clear of.

I will be more than happy to send Reykjavikin Murtomies to one Finn based in the UK in return for telling me why they should have this book, and then spreading the word. In Finnish, English, Icelandic or any other language.

Happy 105th Birthday, Tove!

It was a lovely warm Saturday evening of 9th August 2014 when my mum Krystyna Konecka and me were wandering around the old Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki. Nothing sinister. Just a visit to the grave of an incredible woman Tove Marika Jansson to pay our respects and to leave some flowers.

I could talk for hours about the inspirational and exceptional fine artist and writer who had found international fame and was mostly known for creating the magical Moomin trolls. Instead I would like to invite you to read my earlier post charting our ‘pilgrimage’ to Finland five years ago. It was published on the NordicNoir https://nordicnoirblog.wordpress.com blog:

https://nordicnoirblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/travels-in-moominland-tove-janssons-islands/

and our conversation (in Polish) about Scandinavian fascinations, Moomins and Tove Jansson, from the pages of the Polish Literary and Art e-magazine https://pisarze.pl:  

https://pisarze.pl/2019/06/25/finskie-slady-pani-od-muminkow-w-rozmowie-krystyny-koneckiej-z-ewa-sherman/

Hyvää syntymäpäivää!

The Ninth Step

Ingvi Þór Kormáksson works as a librarian in Reykjavik’s City Library and is well known as a musician and a songwriter, with eleven albums to his credit, and more than 160 of his compositions recorded by various artists, and featuring jazz, bossanova, blues, samba rhythms with occasional folk music traditions. His passion for literature and music are clearly depicted in his writing as he includes details, moods and snippets of musical information that would have been familiar to many Icelanders who had paid special attention to new styles coming to their country.

In 2009, his short story Hlidarspor / Sidetracked won the 2009 Gaddakylfa (`Mace’), an award given by the Icelandic Crime Fiction Association for the year’s best crime fiction story. That was the sixth time that Mace was awarded. Following year, the story was published in his first book, collection of fifteen short stories called Raddir ur fjarlaegd / Voices in the Distance, focusing on tales of the everyday life, often revisiting the past.

I had an opportunity to listen to the author discussing his writing at the first panel of the international IcelandNoir crime fiction festival in Reykjavik in 2016, where the writer, translator and festival co-founder Quentin Bates introduced the Icelandic authors whose books haven’t been translated into English yet. Ingvi Thor Kormáksson discussed literary things with Óskar Guðmundsson, Hildur Sif Thorarensen and Kristján Atli Ragnarsson. Since then The Ninth Step by Ingvi Þór Kormáksson in Larissa Kyzer’s English translation has finally appeared. It is an interesting dark novel, full of angry undertones, regret but also understanding and sensitivity, and deep desire to belong.

As a tale of forgiveness and vengeance The Ninth Step explores the emotional and physical extremes in relation to taking revenge on tormentors decades later. Hurt and humiliation had profound lasting effect not only on two boys but in a twisty horrendous way had damaged lives of other people, too. Conversation of two recovering alcoholics, probably in their forties, punctuated by musings and memories, allows for setting of social background and brining flashbacks explaining some of the has been happening.

The unnamed narrator reflects on his life, relatively carefree childhood in a small fishing village on the western coast of Iceland, in the shadow and presence of a magnificent glacier. He weaves recollections of reality of harsh but simple existence in stunning location, the impact of powerful scenery in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and contrasting urban rock’n’roll years. The paths of Egill, the novel’s main character, and of the narrator cross as these two men had known each other as teens. For some reason Egill must confide in his old friend, especially as recent events weigh heavily on his heart and consciousness.

As a young man Egill spent his time playing, singing, drinking and trying to work out where he had belonged in a changing social landscape of Iceland. He tried his luck while living and playing music in Sweden which he has later abandoned, leaving his girlfriend and their young son. Jobs in fish factories in Faroe Islands didn’t bring much satisfaction. Return to Iceland resulted in a daily struggle just to survive, mostly on a strong cocktail of alcohol and drugs. His health declining, depression taking hold, and self-contempt overwhelming. ‘My life reminded me of a manuscript from which whole chapters have been lost.’ Yet something hidden in the depths of his psyche, something very traumatic, had forced him to seek professional help and go to rehab. And then he had found love. But what he wants to describe during an uncomfortable conversation is the growing suspicion that the tragic accidental death of his girlfriend, and then further mysterious deaths might be linked though police doesn’t think so. Pressure builds up as the ostensibly unrelated victims are connected to him.

His story appears disjointed which is no surprise as he still reels from the most fresh events, and harbours doubts and suspicions that might seriously implicate him. The narration moves between time frames and different persons who got caught up in situations, sometimes unconsciously. This stylistic method suits the confessional approach of the book.

The narrator states his opinion on misapplication of the ninth step, an important part of the alcoholics’ journey to recovery: ‘Egill mastered his courage and tried to atone, to confess, but it backfired. The twelve steps must be taken with care and you’ve got to weight and evaluate the circumstances in each instance – whether there’s a good enough reason to embark upon them even though you might think that you’re prepared to go through that sort of confessional process’. However, readers know nothing of his own battle with alcohol, apart early memories of teenage drinking, and again cannot judge the circumstances and consequences.

Through pulling the strands of experiences told from several perspectives Ingvi Þór Kormáksson’s novel comes to a poignant unexpected finale which leaves the big unanswered question in its wake. Is it possible to atone for an awful act of violence and be forgiven for inexcusable actions? Does it help to understand motives, reasons, personal pain? Can blind following of the process save your own soul and sanity? Read tense The Ninth Step to make up your mind.

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 

KrimFestivalen – Norwegian crime fiction heaven

Meeting of the Norwegian and Swedish masters: Arne Dahl, Stefan Ahnhem, Gunnar Staalesen and Jørn Lier Horst
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The wall of fame
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Typisk svensk: Arne Dahl, Viveca Sten, Martin Österdahl and Camilla Läckberg

Urban Noir panel: Aslak Nore, Ruth Lillegraven, Stefan Ahnhem and Elisabeth Norebäck

#KrimFestivalen in wonderful #Oslo: 65 writers (20 from outside Norway), 50 events between 21st and 23rd March 2019. In attendance were the stalwarts of Scandinavian crime fiction and writers who are on their way to world fame. I won’t list all but here are the names of some of my literary heroes from Norway: Gunnar Staalesen, Torkil Damhaug, Anne Holt, Jørn Lier Horst, Kjell Ola Dahl, Thomas Enger, and Hans Olav Lahlum, and from Sweden: Arne Dahl, Stefan Ahnhem, Camilla Grebe, Camilla Läckberg, Anders de la Motte and Viveca Sten. I feel quite privileged knowing that I have read their books and discovered their distinctive styles of writing, and looking at the world and society through the prism of own unique creativity.

I had a pleasure to attend only a handful of events and it was fun. Hence a snapshot, rather than a full report. The eighth crime fiction festival organised by the publishing house Cappelen Damm was a huge success, attended by crowds of all those who have one thing on their minds. Livestream of all panels ensured that everybody had to chance to see and hear the conversations, never missing a witty remark, a good joke or an insightful comment. Readers and writers mingled together. Very relaxed atmosphere and plenty to talk about; coffee and sale of books in English and Scandinavian languages.

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Crime scene

Torkil Damhaug, delighted to be appointed this year’s festival author, gave an eloquent opening speech the three-day extravaganza. He referred to another author’s comments: ‘The crime fiction literature shamelessly exploits what many would say are the man’s worst sides, our hunger for the grotesque, the macabre, for witnessing violence and atrocities, preferably those committed against the weakest and most unprotected among us.’

In Damhaug’s opinion the crime writers are the world’s kindest people: polite, friendly; they never talk badly about colleagues, never boast, never gossip, never envy. They are extremely law-abiding: ‘If you enter the police criminal records, you will not find a single crime writer. Not so much as a speeding. If you see a group of people walking across the street on red light, the one that remains – yes, you’re guessing right – is the crime writer.’

In this spirit of kindness the overjoyed CJ Tudor, the British female Stephen King, was awarded the Golden Bullet for the Best Translated Crime Fiction for the Chalk Man / Krittmannen, translated into Norwegian by Guro Dimmen. The book was sold to 39 countries before it was even published. The Gullkulen 2019 jury stated that Norwegian publishers are quick to capture quality strong novels from many parts of the world, and the winner was certainly in the league of its own.

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The Golden Bullet / Gullkulen award

During two sparkling English-speaking panels the authors talked about creative process and the current affairs affecting their writing choices, concepts, ideas. Thirty minutes allocated for each panel seemed too short and audience wanted more. But without sticking to the programme there would be no opportunity to see and hear all.

Araminta Hall, CJ Tudor and Lisa Jewell discussed writing from a male perspective which often feels right and relevant for a certain story; social and main stream media attitudes to women and #metoo issues which are still present around us and the fact that women are constantly judged, especially by the British press. However, the authors feel there is hope that the world is slowly changing, and the next generation of girls won’t have to go through this.

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Lisa Jewell, CJ Tudor and Araminta Hall

Inspiration and influences were hot topics for the international group consisting of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Lisa Gardner, Joseph Knox and Robert Dugoni. The Icelandic Queen of Crime, the civil engineer Sigurðardóttir considers that plotting a fictional crime is nothing compared to building a power station. Dugoni studied law to get over a fear but wanted to be a storyteller. The American suspense novelist Gardner said that each novel has its own challenges, including deciding on levels of detail in the books, while Knox feels he is currently facing the ‘second book syndrome’ while working on his third book.

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Norwegian editions of books by Robert Dugoni, Joseph Knox, Lisa Gardner and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir,

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Joseph Knox, Robert Dugoni, Lisa Gardner and Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Some of the events have been held in other locations such as bookshops. At Norli krimkafé four countries were represented: UK – CJ Tudor, Iceland – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Denmark – Anne Mette Hancock, and Sweden – Mattias Edvardsson. Each author was introduced to the public, and the chats were conducted in English and as well as in Danish / Swedish – Norwegian. What I really love is the ease with which Scandinavians can have conversation in own languages and understand each other.

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
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CJ Tudor

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Anne Mette Hancock

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Mattias Edvardsson

A special treat was arranged for the fans of Jørn Lier Horst’s excellent writing. It was an exclusive premiere of the first episode of the new ten-part TV drama series Wisting, based on his first two books The Hunting Dogs and The Caveman. Sven Nordin of Valkyrien, Blue Eyes and Lilyhammer fame, to name just some, took on the part of the Larvik police inspector William Wisting, in pursuit of an American serial killer. Meanwhile his daughter Line, a young investigative journalist, follows previous case which leads her into the killer’s path. In Norway the series will start on Viaplay and TV3 on 11 April; however, no news yet about a future date to air in the UK. Meanwhile those who are not familiar could (and should) read several novels by Lier Horst, the former Senior Investigating Officer at Vestfold Police district.

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With Jørn Lier Horst after the premier of the first episode of Wisting

I must return to Oslo next year. In a meantime it’s back to the varied, inspirational and gripping books.