I’m delighted to welcome crime author Quentin Bates to the blog. Thin Ice, his latest novel, has just been published by Constable and features one of my all-time favourite investigators, Icelandic police officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir. Below, Quentin answers questions about writing the character of Gunna, the kind of Iceland he tries to depict, and the recent Icelandic crime drama Trapped. But first, here’s an exclusive extract from Thin Ice…
The little boy’s eyes were wide with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He swung his legs under the chair that was too high for him while his mother fussed making coffee.
‘Tell the lady what you saw, Nonni,’ she said. ‘It’s all right. You’re not in trouble.’
‘Are you really a policeman?’ he asked and corrected himself. ‘A police lady, I mean?’
‘I am,’ Gunna assured him. ‘I’m a real-life detective.’ ‘Who solves crimes and catches bad people?’ ‘Sort of. That’s only part of what I have to do, and most of it isn’t all that exciting.’ ‘Do you have a gun?’ Nonni asked, eyes wide. ‘No, we don’t carry guns,’ Gunna said, and his disappointment was immediately visible. ‘So what do you do if you meet someone bad who has a gun?’ ‘I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet. So I don’t know what I’d do,’ Gunna said and picked up the mug of coffee that had appeared in front of her, while Nonni got a glass of squash and a slice of cake, which he bit into.
‘What would you have done if you had seen the man I saw today?’ he asked in a serious voice. ‘He had a gun and I saw him shoot it. Would you have been frightened?’
‘I expect so,’ Gunna said. ‘Guns are very dangerous things. Were you frightened, Nonni?’
He thought as he chewed his cake and washed it down with squash.
‘I wasn’t at the time, but I was afterwards,’ he decided. ‘But he didn’t see us, so we were all right.’
Mrs P: Quentin, you’re in the unusual position as a British author of having lived in Iceland for many years. How has that experience – together with your ongoing links to the country – shaped your ‘Icelandic Murder Mystery’ series and Thin Ice?
Quentin: To begin with I shied away from the idea of using Iceland as a backdrop when I started toying with the idea of fiction. There were a few false starts, until it dawned on me that it would be plain daft not to use all that knowledge, insight and experience, so that’s when Frozen Out started to take shape. Being familiar with the language gives you a huge advantage in being able to understand the intricacies of Iceland’s internecine politics and much of the subtext to what goes on that an outsider simply wouldn’t be aware of, as well as being able to laugh at all the otherwise incomprehensible jokes.
Quentin: I was in Iceland a lot in 2008. First in January and it was business as usual, then two visits in the spring and summer when it was becoming clear that something was up. Nobody wanted to say much out loud, but everyone knew something was seriously wrong. It was common knowledge that the banks’ coffers were empty, but this wasn’t reported anywhere. Everyone knew something momentous was about to happen, but nobody had a real idea of when or how hard it would hit. Then I was there in that week in the autumn when the first of the three banks went belly-up. It was painful and fascinating. People were genuinely frightened, and also deeply confused with no idea what was going to happen to their jobs, homes, etc. The aftermath hurt and it was painful to see friends and relatives lose jobs and homes.
I couldn’t not use it. I was working on Frozen Out at the time and re-wrote a lot of it so it coincided with that truly unnerving couple of weeks when all the cards had been thrown in the air and nobody knew anything.
Mrs P: Which particular aspects of Icelandic society have you been keen to share with English-language readers via your crime writing?
Quentin: Let’s say I prefer to avoid the clichés, the stuff the tourists see. Very little of my stuff seems to be set in Reykjavík 101, the central district where all the hotels, bars and whatnot are, which is hipster central these days, lots of manbuns and frothy coffee. I’m happier with the outlying parts of the city and the surrounding towns that are so different to what many visitors see. I can’t avoid mentioning some of the bizarre foodstuffs… all of which I prefer to keep well clear of.
Quentin: What I really like to try and work in there is the quiet, subtle humour of the older generation of Icelanders that has its roots in a time when Iceland was a very different place. It’s a humour so bone-dry that it’s easy to miss it, and it can fly right over your head if you’re not watching out for it.
Mrs P: Icelandic police series by authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson feature male detectives. What made you decide to create a female police investigator?
Quentin: I didn’t set out to create a female investigator. She just appeared. Originally Gunnhildur was the sidekick to a fairly dull male main character who just didn’t click. He was so forgettable that I can’t even remember what name I gave that ill-thought out character back in that very first draft of Frozen Out. He was quite quickly jettisoned once it had occurred to me that the sidekick was the more interesting character, and she did demand attention.
To my surprise, I didn’t find it especially difficult to write a female character. People seem to like her and say she’s realistic, but I think I’m too close to her to be able to judge. I’m sure it would have been much harder to get to grips with a much younger prominent character of either sex – I feel the gender gap was easier to bridge than a significant age gap would have been.
Mrs P: Tell us a little about the way you depict Officer Gunnhildur in the series.
Quentin: Initially she was supposed to be older, in her mid-forties in Frozen Out and about five years older than that today. But the publisher wasn’t happy and wanted a character with a career ahead of her rather than someone with an eye on retirement – preferably much younger. Eventually we compromised and she was transformed into a more youthful but still mature character, which meant reorganising her family circumstances, making her children younger etc. – essentially re-working the entire back story.
Gunnhildur is a character who is definitely not from Reykjavík, and she was deliberately given roots in a coastal region in the west so she can have something of an outsider’s point of view. That’s why she and Helgi connect so well, as he’s also from a rural background in the north and they share a similar background as immigrants to Reykjavík, while Eiríkur is a city boy with little in common with his two middle-aged (or ancient, as he would see them) colleagues.
Gunnhildur’s boyfriend (if I can call him that) was a late addition. It was made clear with the original draft of Frozen Out that a little love interest would be desirable, so I introduced Steini, not expecting him to stay for long. But he’s still there and has become a surprisingly important character, even though he doesn’t appear all that frequently. Maybe it’s time to involve him in some nefarious crime…
Mrs P: Have your crime novels appeared in Iceland (either in Icelandic or in English)? If yes, what kind of reception did they have?
Quentin: The books have been for sale in English in bookshops in Iceland, although I don’t know how many have been sold there and I’m not aware of any feedback from Iceland. They haven’t been translated into Icelandic and I don’t seriously expect they will be.
The problem is that so many Icelanders speak English that they tend to snap up stuff in English. I know of several big sellers in English whose Icelandic publishers gave up on them for just that reason – people wouldn’t wait six months for an translation to appear. It’s almost the opposite of the situation 20-30 years ago when Nordic languages were more prevalent. In that distant age before cable TV and the internet, fewer people spoke English readily and there were more books translated from English and fewer from Nordic languages, presumably because more people would read those in the original. Now only guaranteed top-sellers make it into translation from English and there seem to be more Danish, Swedish and Norwegian books translated into Icelandic.
What I’d really like to see is one of the Gunna novels filmed in an Icelandic production, but that’s an even longer shot than getting a translation.
Mrs P: You’re the translator of Ragnar Jónasson’s crime series (Orenda Books). Has the process of translating his works had any impact – positive or negative – on your own crime writing or the way that you approach writing your own novels?
Quentin: Ragnar’s stuff is very different from mine, so I’m not aware of any particular influence there. One of the keys to being able to translate competently is familiarity with the culture and background as much as the language itself, so I guess that having written my own crime fiction also means that I have something of a criminal vocabulary ready to use. But writing and translation are very different. Translation calls for some of the same skills as writing fiction – a different set of tools from the same toolbox – as well as the discipline not to be tempted to tinker with the original, albeit within some rather elastic limits.
The negative impact is that I’m so busy now with translation, with three of Ragnar’s books to deliver this year, that I’m struggling to find time for Gunnhildur and the other things at the back of my mind that I’m itching to get to grips with but daren’t start.
Mrs P: Trapped, a gripping Icelandic crime drama, has just finished airing in the prestigious BBC4 Saturday-night crime slot. Do you think it will significantly help to raise the profile of crime fiction set in Iceland? And how was it received in Iceland itself?
Quentin: I would imagine that Trapped should lift the profile of Icelandic crime fiction tremendously and can only hope it does for Iceland what The Killing and The Bridge have done for Sweden and Denmark – not just raising the profile of crime fiction but awareness about those countries and their cultures in a more general way. It’s something that ought to give us all a boost.
I’m not entirely sure how Trapped was received in Iceland, as I’ve been getting some mixed messages. On the other hand, it got good viewing figures with something like 60% of households watching it (also good ratings in France and Norway) and I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people who said they weren’t all that bothered about it actually spent those evenings glued to the box.
There have been a few disparaging comments about it being unrealistic. But come on – this is a crime drama. Of course it’s never going to be entirely realistic and there’s no getting away from a certain suspension of belief that has to take place to make the story work. But the snow scenes were very reminiscent of the winters I spent in the north of Iceland, not all that far from where some of Trapped was filmed. My feeling is that Trapped is a far more accurate representation of coastal Iceland than Midsomer Murders is of rural Hampshire, but I get the feeling that Icelanders watched it in much the same way that we watch Inspector Barnaby at work.
Mrs P: You’re one of the founder members of Iceland Noir. How has the convention developed since it started in 2013? And are there new directions that you’d like to take it in future?
Quentin: Iceland Noir started in 2013 on a wing and a prayer as a one-day free event as we pulled in favours here and there to get it off the ground. That was fine for a one-off, but we quickly realised we couldn’t keep it free, so now we charge the lowest festival pass fee that we can.
The second Iceland Noir was bigger and better, and stretched to two days. The third one is planned to be two and a half days, mostly because of the level of interest in it, but that also means more organisation. So the original trio has been added to, with Lilja Sigurðardóttir joining us in ’14 and Grant Nicol this year. So now we have five pairs of hands instead of just three.
My feeling is that we should keep it at two to three days. Any longer than that is likely to be too much of a good thing. I’m also very much in favour of keeping it as a fairly informal, low-cost, non-profit enterprise. So far we’ve been satisfied if we’ve all had a good time with a bunch of criminally-minded people and not lost any money, so I’ll be happy if it stays that way. But the amount of time and effort involved means that holding it every year is possibly going to be too much, so like last year (when we lent the November date to Shetland for their excellent festival), we’d like to continue with Iceland Noir every second year and to lend the slot to some other suitable location in the off years. Shetland was 2015, and it looks very much like Hull will be 2017, as that’s a European City of Culture that year, and that will fit nicely for us to be back in Reykjavík in 2018.
This year we have an outstanding line-up of female crime writers as headliners. But I’d really like Iceland Noir to be the place where you can also see tomorrow’s interesting and exciting talent, not least because it’s so damn hard as a debut novelist to get any attention and there’s so much good stuff that deserves it. This year we have some truly excellent new writers taking part. Reykjavík was where you saw them first and that’s something I’d like to continue.
Many thanks, Quentin!
Catch some other stops on the Thin Ice blog tour here: