Iceland Noir 2016 by Barbara Nadel

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As the name implies, ‘Iceland’ is not the sort of place you go to for a beach-based holiday. In addition for a half-woman, half lizard creature like myself, it’s a bit of a challenge, temperature -wise. However, when I was asked to be on a panel at the world’s premier Icelandic crime festival, I felt I had to get my thermals on, stick a radiator up my jumper and go. I am so glad that I did.

Now in its third year, Iceland Noir already has a reputation as one of the friendliest festivals on the crime fiction circuit and 2016 was no exception. I can be a bit of a hermit when it comes to getting out, but this was so much fun and so friendly I’ve already committed to go next year and the year after. Organised by crime fiction legend and my brother in blogging, Quentin Bates, Kiwi turned Icelandic noir author, Craig Nicol, and Icelandic superstars, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Ragnar Jonasson it was held in a funky building called Nordic House which is part of Reykjavik University.

Fearing that my cats would bully my husband while I was away, I took him with me and we arrived the day before Noir began on 16th November. My husband is a man who delights in cold weather and so when we got off the plane at Keflavik Airport, he had a big smile on his face. I contemplated death. But it got better.

Day 1 consisted of first finding the Nordic House, which we did in spite of my begging my husband to ‘leave me’ when the wind chill factor turned critical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually a wuss and in hot weather I can out-run my old man any time, but this was COLD. It was however worth it.  There were authors everywhere – some known, like old mates Zoe Sharp and Alison Baillie, some unknown, all became at least acquaintances by the end of the four day festival.

The first panel ‘New Blood in Iceland’s Crime Fiction’, moderated by Quentin Bates, allowed me to clock the next wave of Icelandic crime fiction authors and listen to their descriptions of their books. Names to look out for here are Ingvi Thor Kormaksson, Hildur Sif Thorarensen, Kristjan Atli Ragnarsson and Oskar Gudmundsson. Each has a unique take on what it’s like to live on a sparsely populated volcanic island that, back in 2007, experienced the biggest financial meltdown any country has ever experienced. Not yet available in English, I look forward to their books being translated. Luckily I won’t have to wait long for Lilja Sigurdardottir’s ‘Reykjavik Noir Trilogy’ to be available in English as she now has an English publisher, Orenda. The Icelanders are coming and they ain’t gonna take no prisoners!

The first day ended at Reykjavik City Hall with a keynote speech by Val McDermid who was on sparkling, witty form which got us in the mood for the crime based treats to come. Then we all went for a curry. As you do. In Reykjavik.

Day 2 found me covering for Caro Ramsey who unfortunately couldn’t make it, on the ‘Crime Fiction as Social Commentary’ panel. Moderated by Amsterdam based David Swatling, the panel comprised Helen Cadbury, Hilda Sif Thorarensen and Valentina Giambanco. Don’t worry I’m not going to describe each and every panel in detail. I mention this only because this was the first panel I was on and so was therefore where I lost my Iceland Noir ‘virginity’. Indulge me.

If I were to sum up two themes that ran through the festival it is probably social issues and dark secrets. Jackie Collins moderated a fantastic panel entitled ‘Queer Crime’ which featured brilliant LGBT writers Val McDermid, Mari Hannah, David Swatling and Lilja Sigurdardottir as well as non-LGBT writer, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Yrsa particularly wanted to be on this panel to make the point that LGBT or straight we should all be able to discuss each others worlds freely. A timely message in what are increasingly troubled times.

My own panel on day 3 was called ‘Strange Places’ where Steph Broadribb, Stacy Allen, Bill Ryan and myself discussed setting crime fiction in countries that are not our own. Andy Lawrence moderated and one of the things that emerged from this discussion was how we all deal, or not, with  an increasingly authoritarian world.

My two crime fiction series are set in mega cities: London and Istanbul. So I was interested to hear what writers who specialise in small community crime had to say in ‘Small Town Skulduggery’. This panel featured two of my favourite ‘small town’ writers SJI Holliday and Ann Cleeves. City people like me do tend to think that the countryside is either ‘dead’ or full of rather scary people who won’t understand us. Mainly nonsense of course, but these places do seethe with secrets which was also the subject of ‘Skeletons in the Closet’ a discussion about family secrets moderated by Jake Kerridge. That one was most illuminating with family secrets ‘queens’ Sarah Ward and Susan Moody sharing some extremely disturbing examples of family ‘skeletons’.

Entirely unique to Iceland Noir was ‘The ****ing Swearing Panel’ which actually closed the festival. Moderated by Grant Nicol, it featured four of crime fiction’s most prolific users of colourful language – Val McDermid, JS Law, Craig Robertson and Derek Farrell. Uproarious and hilarious it was a deluge of f-ing, blinding and god-knows-what-ing and if it ever happens again I want to be part of it. As one who had been told off in the past for using too many c**ts, I know whereof I speak.

However, probably my favourite part of the festival, was the Reykjavik Crime Walk at the end of the second day. Conducted in late afternoon darkness, it started at Nordic House and ended at the beautiful Ida Zimsen bookshop in downtown Reykjavik. On the way we were taken through a spooky graveyard, past crossroads infested with elves and we stood in front of an apartment block where a ‘murderer’ was just about to do a dreadful deed. At each stopping point we were treated to readings by local authors, Lilija Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Jonasson, Oskar Gudmundsson and Solveig Palsdottir. Translations into English were by Quentin Bates. In the wonderfully atmospheric graveyard I was reminded of the dark ghost world of one of my favourite crime authors, AK Benedict.

The final day of the festival consisted of a trip out to the fantastic lava fields around Keflavik. Iceland has a bleak and haunted beauty all of its own and to see it in bright sunshine was really a treat. We even managed to spot a rare, pure-white arctic fox!

In summary, the whole gig was a blast. We listened to great discussions, attended fantastic events, saw some insane landscape and got a bit spooky. What could be better? Can’t wait for the next Iceland Noir although, if I have one suggestion, it is that we somehow get all of our significant others involved too. Maybe a crime authors WAGs panel…

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