A personal Iceland Noir essential five by Quentin Bates

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It’s time for Iceland Noir again, the small but perfect crime fiction festival that a group of us organise in Reykjavík. The last one was in 2014, and it was great. We gave 2015 a miss and loaned the date to Shetland for their excellent festival last year.

We also plan to sit out next year and the plan is for the date to go to the English city of Hull for its first crime festival. Maybe we’ll be back in Iceland again in 2018.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing this time. The referendum in Britain in the summer knocked holes in the pound, currently at an all-time low, making Iceland an expensive destination, and on top of that there’s a volcano along the coast from Reykjavík that has been muttering it its sleep. If Katla does decide to blow its top, as it normally does once a century and the last one was in 1918, then it’s going to make Eyjafjallajökull look like a firecracker. But let’s not worry about that and hope Katla will sleep through Iceland Noir this year.

We have some proper big names this year. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir suggested that we should have three female crime writers as the headliners. As Yrsa doesn’t make a habit of having bad ideas, that’s what we did, except that the three turned into four.

Our big names are Val McDermid, Viceca Sten, Sara Blædel and Leena Lehtolainen, representing Scotland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, plus we have a host of other fine writers taking part and some panels that we hope will go down in crime fiction legend.

As with the first Sex Pistols gig that apparently anyone who was anyone was at, there will be grizzled critics in the future reminiscing at the bar one day about the ****ing Swearing panel at Iceland Noir back in ‘16.

But in the meantime, here are my personal picks of the 2016 Iceland Noir cohort to watch out for.

I’ve been raving about William Ryan’s The Constant Soldier ever since I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance copy.

His thoughtful, carefully researched crime novels feature a police officer with the unenviable task of searching for the truth in Stalin’s Soviet Union, at a time and in a country in which truth is a flexible concept and those who contravene an internecine set of rules are liable to pay dearly for their mistake.

The Constant Soldier is a different, in that it’s not a crime story in the accepted sense. Paul Brandt is shipped home from the eastern front in the closing months of the Second World War, minus an arms and laden with mental scars, to encounter a figure from his past.

The quality of William Ryan’s writing is outstanding and The Constant Soldier has all the hallmarks of a book that has been written with great care and a determination by the author to tell the best story he can. There’s no wasted space, there’s hardly a line in the book that doesn’t need to be there.

This can’t have been an easy book to write. It’s not the easiest book to read, although this is one of those books that leaves its characters walking around in your head for days after you’ve read the last page and wished there was more.

I should have hated Alexandra Benedict’s first book, The Beauty of Murder. It has all the elements that don’t do it for me, the aficionado of gritty black-and-white realism. There are ghosts in there. OK, I don’t do ghosts, but I’ll give it a try. There’s time travel in there as well. What’s this? Doctor Who? Come on.

If I had picked this book up in a shop, I’d have dropped it and looked for something else.

But… I couldn’t put it down. The darkness, the creepiness, the gloom and the intrigue get under your skin. So when the next book, Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts, came along, there was nothing for it but to put those old prejudices aside and snap it up.

Barbara Nadel is someone familiar to the Reality Check’s readers and she’s someone who tells a tale that sticks in your mind. She’s the author of a whole bunch of crime series that range from Turkey to the East End of London, and from the present day to deep in the depths of the turbulent 20th century.

There’s the Ikmen series set in Istanbul, and then the Francis Hancock books set in London’s East End during the years of the Second World War. East London is also the setting of the new Hakim and Arnold series set firmly in the present day with all of the tensions and racial undercurrents that go with the area being a melting pot of immigration, new money and some fascinating villainy.

Unfortunately you can’t read any of Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s books in English yet, a situation that must be about to be remedied before too long. Lilja has been writing for a some years and has both a few novels and an award winning play behind her.

Now things have moved up a gear. Her novel Gildran (The Trap) has been translated well received in its Norwegian and French translations, and an English version looks a likely prospect, plus there’s a film deal in the works.

Sonja finds herself in trapped between family and the criminals who have their hooks deep in her, condemning her to find increasingly ingenious ways to smuggle drugs as a frequent traveller between Iceland, London and Copenhagen.

This is one to watch out for when it hits British bookshop shelves.

I used to be a seaman back sometime in the last century, so I have a weakness for a good nautical yarn. The trouble is, so many of them are just terrible, so it’s a pleasure to come across something that combines ships and crime. Surprisingly, it’s not an easy combination, but JS Law has pulled it off with some aplomb.

You can tell he’s got his feet wet once or twice. That’s assuming submariners ever get to see any real water other than the recycled stuff they use to make tea.

Tenacity is his first novel, set partly on board a nuclear submarine of the same name. It features a female Naval investigator who finds herself dropped into a dauntingly unfamiliar male world where testosterone drips from the light fittings.

It makes compulsive reading. The second novel, Defiance, should be on the shelves by the time Iceland Noir comes around.

Iceland Noir takes place 17th-20th November, if you happen to be passing through Reykjavík, and aren’t hurrying to keep clear of an angry volcano.

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