I’ve been fascinated with Iceland my entire life. As a young American airman, my father was posted at a remote radar station on the Langanes Peninsula at the height of the Cold War. H2, as it was designated by the military, wasn’t the type of place you could bring your pregnant wife and two-year-old son, so my father was on the other side of the world the day I was born. My favourite memento from his posting was a pair of high-tech, Air Force-issue snow boots that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Bond film.
I never thought I’d visit Iceland let alone grow to love the place and its people, but good fortune and books brought me to Bouchercon, New Orleans where I met and befriended Iceland’s crime queen Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and her charming husband Ólafur Þórðarson. Fast forward five years and I’ve just returned from my second Iceland Noir, a festival that was dreamed up over a curry dinner at a Bristol restaurant during Crimefest 2013. The goal was to create a Reykjavik-based festival celebrating crime fiction. If the rave reviews they’ve received this year are anything to go by, I’d say they’ve succeeded.
We all know how tough the past twenty-one months have been. Iceland Noir 2020 was cancelled, and Iceland Noir 2021 opened just as case numbers were soaring both in Iceland and abroad, but the show went on and we are so grateful it did. After so many missed festivals, book launches and actual face-to-face meetings with people we know, love and admire, we were finally going to be in the same room again. A handful of authors couldn’t attend due to Covid, but Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves, Liz Nugent, Sara Blædel, A.J. Finn, Kevin Wignall, Mark Edwards, S.J. Watson, Fiona Cummins, Simon Kernick, Emelie Schepp, Anthony Horowitz and many more authors braved the journey. Added to the mix were a wealth of well-known Icelandic crime fiction authors, literary authors, actors and poets, who welcomed us with open arms, metaphorically speaking of course.
“The single stream of events and close proximity of the venues means that authors have the time and energy to attend their colleagues’ events, which adds to the sense of intimacy.”
The festival’s events were divided between IÐNÓ, an historic theatre next to the picturesque Lake Tjörnin, and Vinnustofa Kjarvals, a private members’ club located on the top floors of what must be one of downtown Reykjavik’s tallest buildings. I was told that upper floors once served as Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval’s art studio, which was wonderful to contemplate when I was looking out over the views of the city. The short walk between the venues takes you past Althingi Parliament House, the Reykjavik Cathedral, which dates back to 1796, and Austurvöllur, a leafy square featuring a statue of Jón Sigurdsson, a leader in Iceland’s independence movement. The bar is always the main focal point of any great crime writers’ festival and this is where Iceland Noir excelled. The excellent lounge at Vinnustofa Kjarvals is as vast as it is stylish with ample seating and brilliant bartenders who seemed to understand just how much authors appreciate an expertly mixed cocktail. They had Negronis on tap, which was a time-saving bonus. I enjoyed gathering with other writers on the balcony to enjoy the freezing temperatures, cheeky cigarettes and incredibly early sunsets over Reykjavik.
Iceland Noir is intimate in comparison to other festivals. You won’t find any books for sale at the venues and there are no official author signings, effectively shifting the focus away from the commercial side of publishing and back to what really matters to most writers and readers. The single stream of events and close proximity of the venues means that authors have the time and energy to attend their colleagues’ events, which adds to the sense of intimacy. Events at the Vinnustofa Kjarvals venue took place in a loft space full of comfortable sofas, bohemian touches and breathtaking views of Reykjavik’s skyline and the distant mountain ranges. Panels ranged from relaxed ‘chit chats’ amongst writers who, over the years, have become close friends, to more formal discussions about anything from murderous islands and crime detection to a debate over which is best, the book or the screen. Icelandic poets and literary authors were a welcome addition to these discussions, as I was introduced to work that normally wouldn’t have been on my radar. My panel was brilliantly moderated by literary agent extraordinaire David Headley. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is an author whose work I know well having read the poignant A Creak on the Stairs, but the other panellist Kristín Eiríksdóttir was completely unknown to me. I’ve just started reading her novel A Fist or a Heart, and I’m enjoying it immensely. I hope more of her work is translated in future.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ólafur Þór Þórðarson
Attending a screening of The Woman in the Window at Kjarvals was a real privilege as the author A.J. Finn was ‘literarily’ (see what I did there) sitting on the sofa next to mine. On the Saturday evening he and Liz Nugent shared the stage at the IÐNÓ for intimate discussion about books, friendship and mental health. Many of the authors I spoke to said this was one their favourite events. On Thursday evening Iceland’s prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir sat down for a chat with Ian Rankin at the same venue and the following day it was Iceland’s First Lady Eliza Reid’s turn. A published author in her own right, the First Lady shared the stage with famed author Anthony Horowitz, a man who never fails to impress me. His work ethic is incredible. Every morning I wake up and pray for that kind of focus. I’m now looking forward to reading Eliza Reid’s recently published novel Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World. Iceland is said to be the best country in the world to be a woman and I’m beginning to see why.
One of my favourite events was the aptly named ‘Viking Panel’, which brought together Iceland Noir’s organisers Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and Óskar Guðmundsson. The moderator Abby Endler from Crime by the Book expertly guided the panellists through a lively discussion that touched on why Iceland is the home of so many successful crime writers. The mystery to their global success is still not solved but I feel we’re getting closer to an answer. Perhaps all will be revealed at Iceland Noir 2022. I, for one, can’t wait.
A surprising number of authors responded to a request for their thoughts on why they felt Iceland Noir was special. I was going to include them in the text of the article, but that proved impossible, so I’ve added their quotes in the order they appeared in my inbox…
Ann Cleeves (Shetland, Vera, The Long Call)
“Iceland Noir is a cross between an old friends’ boozy reunion and the best kind of book group. Writers and readers from across the globe come together to share their reading passions and to laugh… There is a lot of laughter.”
Kevin Wignall (Those Who Disappeared)
“There’s a great sense of intimacy about Iceland Noir, yet at the same time, it’s full of surprises – I always seem to come away with new friends and a mammoth reading list.”
Sara Blædel (Louise Rick series)
“Iceland Noir is a fantastic book festival, not only because the setting is Reykjavik but also because the organisers do a brilliant job in putting together an amazing programme. The author interviews take place in a cosy and relaxed atmosphere, so we are getting to know each other in a more intimate setting. Iceland Noir is one of my favourite book festivals.”
Mark Edwards (The Hollows)
“This was my first visit to Iceland, my first Iceland Noir, and also the first time I’ve been on a plane since 2019. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a magical experience. The most beautiful, welcoming country – snow! humpback whales! geysers! – and a friendly, well-organised festival. I particularly enjoyed Liz Nugent’s chat with A.J. Finn, which was emotional and illuminating. I can’t wait to visit again.”
Shari Lapena (Not a Happy Family)
“Iceland Noir is so special. It’s a very intimate festival, very friendly, where everyone talks to everyone, and you really get to know one another. I have begun great friendships at Iceland Noir. The panels are uniformly brilliant and the opportunities to explore all that Iceland has to offer – priceless! Iceland Noir is a very favourite festival of mine, and one I want to return to again and again, even though I’ve been twice already. If you’ve ever been, you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t – you should! And Icelanders are even nicer than Canadians!”
Liz Nugent (Our Little Cruelties)
“I loved Iceland Noir so much even though I was quite under the weather for most of it. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting writer friends, but it was also lovely to meet readers. I got to chat on stage with my friend A.J. Finn and meet some writing heroes, Sara Blædel and Anthony Horowitz, who I hadn’t met before. Yrsa, Ragnar, Eva and Oskar made everyone feel so welcome. I am determined to go back to Iceland next year. I missed all the sightseeing, though I did walk around Reykjavik and marvelled at the number of bookshops in such a small city. I think I found my tribe up there! Great to meet new writers too. I shared a panel with Kamilla Einarsdóttir and really can’t wait for her to be translated into English. Sólveig Pólsdóttir and Bogdan Teodorescu were new to me as well. I loved the relaxed nature of the discussions. There’s something about Iceland that makes us shake off our preconceptions about other writers. Maybe all those layers of wool are a great leveller?”
Simon Kernick (Good Cop Bad Cop)
“Iceland Noir is one of the most enjoyable crime writing festivals because its organisers are writers themselves and know how to make it fun, varied, and very, very quirky!”
Fiona Cummins (When I Was Ten)
“I was blown away by Iceland Noir. It was my first time in Reykjavik and I fell in love with the city and the landscape. With picture-perfect snow falling on the first night, I could have stayed in the candlelit bar drinking Moscow Mules with my writer friends forever. My favourite event was Liz Nugent and A.J. Finn in conversation. It was such a hilarious, moving and riveting chat between two writers who have a history and understanding of each other. It made me laugh and cry. I’m already counting the weeks until I can go back.”
Michael Ridpath (Writing in Ice)
“I love Iceland Noir. It’s partly that Reykjavík is so atmospheric in November: the low sun creeping under the clouds to glint off the ice in the pond in the centre of town, a dusting of snow falling on the brightly painted metal houses, the lights of cosy bars winking at you enticingly through the early dusk. It’s also that the festival is so damn friendly. The Icelanders are an egalitarian bunch, and this rubs through to the participants, where globetrotting bestselling authors and shy fans are equally encouraging to first-time authors. The President’s wife and the Prime Minister, both extremely knowledgeable about crime, take an active part.
“It’s also good to skip out of panels for the odd hour or two. This year I swam in the Vesturbæjarlaug open-air pool in the snow, and lolled in one of its six hot tubs while watching through the steam a PE class from a local school skid squealing down a snowy bank in their swimming trunks. And I made a new research contact from the Icelandic police, who took me back to his man-cave to show me his wargaming collection. Given my job, I have an active imagination for how situations like this can go fatally wrong, but I comforted myself with Iceland’s inconveniently low – for a crime writer – murder rate.
“I survived. I will return.”
William Ryan (The Winter Guest)
“I’ve been to every Iceland Noir – it’s the one festival I don’t want to miss. There are lots of reasons I like it as much as I do but one of them is that anybody odd enough to go within a few miles of the Arctic Circle in late November to talk about crime fiction is almost certainly my kind of person.
“A few miles = 168 miles.”
Jeffrey Siger (Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis mysteries)
“Since its inception, Iceland Noir has held a very special place in my heart. I say that having served two terms as national chair of Bouchercon, a far larger and different form of mystery lovers’ conclave. Bouchercon has well over a thousand attendees, with venues each year in a different city from the last, and operates through different local organising committees, while Iceland Noir is much smaller, set in magical Reykjavik, and operates under roughly the same leadership year-to-year.
“But I see a more significant difference between the two: Bouchercon is a fan-oriented convention, Iceland Noir is a writers festival.
“Bouchercon provides free books to fans through the generosity of publishers, offers concurrently-running tracks of panels affording fans a half-dozen choices for each time slot, and sets aside major space for signings and book purchases through an array of booksellers.
“Iceland Noir offers none of that. No free books, no book room, no official signings, and no competing panel tracks. It’s all about every author having the opportunity of attending their colleagues’ panels, creating a ‘we’re all in this crazy business together’ camaraderie among bestselling, mid-list, and aspiring writers.
“I love both formats. And remain fiercely loyal to each.”
All photos courtesy Karin Salvalaggio