A couple of weeks ago a man visited a lawyer’s offices in Reykjavík. There’s nothing unusual about that. In this debt-stricken country, lawyers prosper and collection agencies are one of the few real growth industries.
It seems that this particular man had borrowed a relatively modest amount of money to buy himself a motorbike. Again, nothing out of the ordinary there. Except that the he had defaulted on his bank payments and the accumulated interest, fees, etc amounted to roughly seven times the original sum.
That’s also nothing out of the ordinary. But this time something snapped. We don’t know just what, as the case is still under investigation. However, the man pulled a knife and stabbed the lawyer before being pulled away and disarmed by another of the legal eagles, a former sporting hero who was also injured in the fracas. The man who was on the receiving end of the attack was still in hospital in a coma at the time of writing.
In South-East Asia or Central America, this might hardly be news, but this happened in Iceland – supposedly one of the most peaceful, safe, law-abiding places in the world.
The news of this struck an unnerving chord with me.
A year and a half ago I was still deep in writing Cold Comfort (yes, this is partly a shameless plug for my new book, published in the UK this week) and during a visit to Iceland was talking to one of my wife’s numerous cousins, someone I’ve known well for the best part of thirty years. This was someone who had come very badly out of the financial crash and who has since become part of the exodus, emigrating to start afresh abroad.
At that time the crash was still very fresh. The full force of the government’s swingeing cuts that left the police, health service, education and every other aspect of the public sector fighting to make ends meet was starting to bite hard. People were losing their homes and jobs at an alarming rate in a country that hadn’t seen any genuine hard times since the herring disappeared a generation ago. Iceland’s rickety, small-scale, seafood-based economy had been solid enough for recessions in neighbouring Europe to pass virtually unnoticed. But that changed as the owners of Icelandic banks decided that they wanted to be world-class players.
When we were talking, the cousin had lost one job, counted himself lucky to have found another to tide him over for a few weeks, and was preparing to ship out. We were talking over what had happened, and he said, almost out of the blue; ‘you know, someone’s going to snap one day and kill one of those bastards.’
By ‘those bastards’ he meant any one of the myriad moneymen who were either pulling in the debts that people had accrued as the payments on those wonderful foreign currency loans went through the roof, or else one of the bankers who sold those loans and financial packages so energetically in the months and years before the crash.
His remark stayed with me and I thought it over, back and forth. I already had most of the central plot of what I was working on, but wanted a sub-plot to run alongside it, and came up with Jón the plumber. There’s nothing unusual about Jón the plumber’s predicament. He’s an ordinary blue-collar working Joe and I know a dozen people like him in Iceland who have taken a hit to a greater or lesser extent in the last few years.
Without giving away too much, Jón the plumber snapping under the pressure and trying to take things back into his own hands after being beset by circumstances became an integral part of the plot of Cold Comfort. He’s certainly not based on anyone in particular. There was no need to. There’s someone like him in every town and village. He just jumped off the screen.
The real-life case of the man who stabbed the lawyer has been greeted with shock in the Icelandic media, but deep down, there’s no real surprise that this has finally happened. If there’s surprise, it’s not that this has occurred, but that it took so long.
When I wrote the story of Jón the plumber that roughly parallels the sad tale of the guy who stabbed the lawyer, I had no
real belief that something like this would actually happen. Icelanders tend to take the brickbats that life throws at them, complain loudly, and wait for the next one. In a law-abiding place like this it’s rare for people to take the law into their own hands, and seeking physical revenge for a perceived wrongdoing is something that belongs in the Saga Age, not in comfortable present-day Iceland.
It sends a shiver down the spine.
Cold Comfort is published in the UK by Constable & Robinson on the 15th of March as both paperback and e-book.
The hardback US version was published by Soho Crime in January.
Cold Comfort will be published as Kalter Trost by Lübbe Verlag in Germany on the 20th July and by Karakter in Holland as Schrale Troost later this year.