British author Michael Ridpath left the high stakes life of a bond trader in the city of London to write thrillers for a living. He naturally turned to high finance thrillers first, penning eight of them before beginning a new series set in Iceland. The series features Magnus Jonson, who is Icelandic but was bought up in the United States and joined the Boston police. Now he has returned to his native land where he is on loan to the Icelandic Police Force as a detective and recruit trainer in U.S. policing methods.
The London Times noted of his first title in the series, Where the Shadows Lie: “A clever blend of murder mystery, myth and up-to-the-minute mayhem … Whether you’re a fan of orcs, Gimli and Legolas or Elmore Leonard and The Sopranos, there’s something in this quixotic, atmospheric alternative thriller for you.” Further praise came from the Literary Review: “This is a good story set in a fascinating place and spiced with some sharp observation.”
In its American edition, just out, Booklist gave the novel a starred review, terming it “exotic and compelling, a first-class mystery,” and Publishers Weekly noted that “Ridpath smoothly melds history, legend, and a police procedural in this first of a crime series set in Iceland.”
Second in the series, 66 North, came out this year in England, and again earned praise from the reviewers. The Guardian commented: “It’s brave of Ridpath to try to beat Nordic crime writers on their own turf, but he does his best – which is very good indeed.” Similarly, Eurocrime dubbed this novel “an intelligent, scorchingly paced, energetic thriller, relying for its effect on plot and character rather than explicit violence or trendy pyrotechnics.”
I first encountered Iceland on a surreal book tour there in 1995 to promote my first financial thriller, Free To Trade. Highlights were businessmen who believed in elves, discussing Björk in a bar and then discovering she was sitting behind me, watching people bathe in sub-zero temperatures and the fact that all the journalists who interviewed me seemed to play for second division football clubs. I decided I would squeeze Iceland into a book one day, but it took me thirteen years to do it.
I tend to go on short visits of a few days at a time, usually as I am just about to start a book. I walk with my characters through the action.
What things about Iceland make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Iceland is a fascinating country. The people are a hard-working, manic lot with a highly developed sense of humour, big on irony. The overwhelming theme in Iceland is the clash of the old and the new. In 1940 Iceland was probably the poorest country in Europe, by 2007 it was one of the most advanced. Every Icelander seems to have a Facebook page; every Icelander’s grandmother believed in elves.
The conflict between the old and the new applies to the landscape as well. Bleak mountains, beautiful white glaciers, fjords, lava fields with mosses nibbling into the rock. It looks ancient, but actually it is very new geologically speaking, work in progress. And of course the landscape is full of myths and legends, trolls and elves, and the sites of the great medieval sagas.
Did you consciously set out to use Iceland as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I wanted to do two things: show what Icelanders and Iceland are like, and show how the country works. I am trying to get to the bottom of the society, explain why Icelanders behave the way they do, to get under the skin of the people and show foreigners what it is like to live there. So the country is more than a character, in that Iceland is part of each of my characters in different ways.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I want my readers to have a good idea of Iceland in their mind as they read the book. I use three techniques for doing this. Firstly, I pick a couple of symbolic landmarks, which I refer to several times in each book, to try to give the reader a sense of familiarity. For Reykjavik these are the Hallgrímskirkja (a church that looks like a ballistic missile) and Mount Esja (a mountain ridge that changes colour with the weather). Secondly, I try to pick out bizarre or counterintuitive details – there are loads of these in Iceland. And lastly I describe things that move – birds, the clouds, weird pedestrians. What I can’t do is simile and metaphor; my brain just isn’t wired correctly for that.
How does your protagonist, Magnus, interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Magnus?
I’m writing about a detective; I’m a foreigner who doesn’t speak Icelandic myself, and I want to show the country from the point of view of an outsider. This combination poses a problem. The solution I came up with is a rather odd background for my detective, Magnus.
He was born in Iceland, but his parents split up when he was a child, and Magnus followed his father to Boston where his father took a job as a professor of Mathematics. Magnus grew up a lone Icelandic kid in an American High School, reading the sagas for comfort. He went to university and was planning to go to Law School, when his father was murdered. The local police couldn’t find the killer, and despite his obsession with the task, neither could Magnus. But it caused him to change his career plans and become a cop.
Twelve years later, he is a homicide detective in Boston when he gets caught up in a police corruption scandal and he needs to disappear for his own safety. The Reykjavík police are looking for an adviser to help them with increasing levels of big-city crime. So Magnus moves to Reykjavík. I’ve got him where I want him – an Icelandic speaking cop who sees his country through the eyes of an American detective.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I had an Icelandic publisher for Free To Trade, but he was reluctant to commit to publishing Where The Shadows Lie in Icelandic. He said Icelanders didn’t like books written by foreigners, they always get the facts wrong. Once I had written and rewritten the book (with his help), he did decide to publish. I went on my second book tour there last November. I was very nervous, but I seem to have got all the details correct, which pleased the Icelanders greatly. There is a rumour that I am half Icelandic, which although untrue, probably helps.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
None yet that I know of, apart from calling a character Audarsdóttir instead of Audardóttir. But I am one hundred per cent sure they are coming. I can feel the complacency settling in. Dangerous.
Of the Iceland novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
The Saga of the People of Eyri has a wonderful chapter about to Swedish Berserkers that live next to a lava field on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. One of them wants to marry the daughter of a farmer. He doesn’t like this idea, so he tells them to cut a path through the lava field and afterwards runs them through and buries them there. You can still see the farm, the lava field, path and the cairn where they are buried. Chapter Two of my second book, 66 North, features two boys playing berserkers in the lava field.
Before writing Where The Shadows Lie, I read a number of detective stories written by Englishmen or Americans about foreign detectives – books by Donna Leon, David Hewson, Martin Walker and Craig Russell. They are all good, but I was inspired by Craig Russell’s Inspector Fabel series, set in Hamburg. He is Scottish, but showed me how to write about a foreign country convincingly.
What’s next for Magnus?
A volcano erupts in Iceland in April 2010. A foreign tourist is killed on the rim. The volcano kind of gets in the way of the investigation.
Michael, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Michael Ridpath, visit his homepage.