Reykjavik is My Beat: Arnaldur Indriðason talks to Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw has now written about Arnaldur Indriðason in no less than five books – Arnaldur Squaresomething of a record. For his forthcoming Theakstons interview with the Nordic crime master, we asked Barry about their very first meeting — and he remembers chatting to Arnaldur as much about the time both had spent as film critics as about crime fiction. Barry remembers it was at a rather staid Icelandic dinner, much enlivened for him by this conversation. The following was the result: here are extracts from Barry’s very first interview with the king of Icelandic crime…

I write a series called ‘A Reykjavik Murder Mystery’ about my police detective named Erlendur (the name means ‘Stranger’ in English), and a typical opening might be that for The Draining Lake: the discovery of human bones in a lake just outside Reykjavík. Tied to the bones is a big black Russian radio transmitter, and when Erlendur starts to investigate he finds out the body was put in the lake in the years around 1970. From there, the story goes back to Leipzig in the 1950s where a group of Icelandic students are studying at the Karl Marx University. So, it is a Cold War mystery taking place in the past and partly in a foreign country.

When it comes to influences I must name the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I read all of their books when I was younger and, like them, I try to write books that have in them aspects of social realism. I think I learned from them that crime stories are excellent arenas for writing about the society you live in and the things you want the reader to focus on and think about. So one of my books is about domestic violence. Another is about the dangers of storing great masses of personal information in a big databank. Also I read Ed McBain and older thriller writers such as MacLean, Innes, Bagley and so on. I read a lot of crime fiction when I was a critic at Morgunbladid, the biggest newspaper in Iceland. I wrote about films and thrillers and learned from them both.

I learned especially from the bad films because they can tell you so well how not to do things. I got tired of the books. They were all either British or American paperbacks that were sold in bookstores in Reykjavik: I tried to read all the newest ones and I found out that there really are very few very good crime writers working today. I have a degree in history and mostly I read historical stuff about old Iceland – much the same sort of thing that Erlendur reads when he is alone and sad in his dark apartment. What I don’t like is to be preached to. I get very tired of writers with big agendas trying to tell us how to live our lives. It’s very difficult not to be political today with all the things going on, but what I think is most important is that all sensible views and opinions are allowed to be heard. The only question is: what, in the end, is ‘sensible’?

I try to be very organised in my work. I get up early in the morning and work till the afternoon and try to write something every day. I was a journalist and a critic for 20 years, so I have been writing all my life — only now I write what I want. I quit my day job and now I’m a full-time writer, which is a freedom I cherish very much. Good crime stories have everything ‘serious’ literature has, only it’s so much more fun. Good characters and plots are what we want to see in a novel and crime stories have all that but also can give a great commentary on life, society and human feelings, of love and hate and revenge, everything Shakespeare and the Icelandic sagas were all about.

As I said before, films have had great influence on me as a writer and I must mention The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock as one of my favourites. How he blends dark humour and thrills is fascinating, and how he brilliantly uses film technique to build excitement. I try to use literary techniques to do the same. Also, I listen to all kinds of music for inspiration; most recently Moby, Cash and Sinatra.

The thing is, I seldom know what exactly is going to happen and who will be in the narrative. I know basically what I’m going to write about (such as domestic violence), and I have my usual ‘staff’, of course (my books being a series), but apart from that the book takes shape during the writing. I have a good many ideas to build on, but I think what is most important is the characters. Everything is secondary to them because you can have the most complicated and thrilling plots but if you don’t care for the characters there is simply no point in them.

Reykjavík is my beat, and there I find the things that influence me the most.

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Barry’s latest books are Euro Noir and Sex and Film