With a population of just 323,000 it can be easy to see Iceland as quaint, but the Scandinavian country is a world away from Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Yet it was their creator, Agatha Christie, who had such an effect on one Icelandic teenager, Ragnar Jonasson, that he went on to write his own best-selling murder mysteries. Ragnar’s bestselling Snowblind series has made its way around the world and thrust a small fishing village in Iceland’s north into the spotlight. Taking time out from his busy schedule, Ragnar answered some questions for us:
When you were 17 you began translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic? Was the love of murder mysteries instinctual? What was the first Agatha Christie novel you read and what effect did her books have on you?
The first Agatha Christie I read was Evil under the Sun, in Icelandic translation, at the age of 11, and right after that one I read Why Didn’t they Ask Evans. One of the first Christie’s I read was also The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I think it’s safe to say there was no turning back after that. I read all of her available books in English, some of them I even had to read at the National Library at weekends, because they were out of print, and then I started reading them in English a few years later.
You have worked as both a lawyer and a reporter. Did real-life crime influence your decision to write, or at least influence the sort of books that you write?
No, not really. I have tried to keep my work as a lawyer quite separate from the writing, so there are very few lawyers in my books. There is however a reporter in Blackout and Rupture, Ísrún, and I used my experience of being a TV reporter when creating her.
Iceland, and much of Scandinavia, is now synonymous with crime fiction. Indeed, your books form part of a series called Dark Iceland. Do you think of these countries are dangerous places?
Iceland is actually the most peaceful country in the world, according to the Global Peace Index (and number two is another Nordic country, Denmark), so I think I have to say no, but I think crime fiction set in such an environment may be interesting for exactly that reason, i.e. the contrasts.
You chose Siglufjordur as the setting for your series: why? What did you think when you saw it was also used as the filming location for the TV series, Trapped aka Ófærð?
Siglufjordur is where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived and I have been visiting the place since I was three months’ old, and I stay there every year as often as I can. When I started writing Snowblind, which was initially published in Iceland in 2010, the selection of Siglufjordur was actually an obvious one for me. I knew the place very well and it also had the elements of isolation I was looking for, with the high mountains, treacherous weather and being only accessible via a mountain tunnel.
Where did you get your inspiration for Ari Thor?
Ari Thor had actually appeared once before Snowblind, in a novel I wrote in 2009, Fölsk nóta (False Note), where he was a young theology student looking for his missing father. That was initially a one-off idea and I didn’t necessarily intend to write a series about him, but my Icelandic publishers suggested I would do another one, and that is how he became the key character in the Dark Iceland series. However, when creating him, I did make sure he was quite young – a few years younger than I am, as I recalled quotes from Agatha Christie to the effect that she felt she had created her main characters, Poirot and Marple, too old at the outset.
How does it feel that your books became bestsellers in far-off countries like Australia? What do you believe is their appeal?
I was really pleased to see Snowblind and Nightblind do so well in Australia, and I don’t really have any explanation, except perhaps that Iceland is a very popular place these days, with more tourists than ever, so I may be benefitting from the popularity of Iceland in general.
Finally, where are your favourite places in Iceland and why?
Reykjavik, a wonderful city.
Elliðaey, off the south coast, a stunning, stunning small island, where my latest novel is actually set.
The Glacial Lagoon, Jökulsárlón, on the south-east coast, a place I would recommend to any tourist visiting Iceland.
Anywhere you can see either the midnight sun in summer or the northern lights in winter.