British author Quentin Bates spent a decade in Iceland as a young man, working variously as a netmaker, factory hand, and trawlerman. Returning to England, he became a journalist for a nautical trade mag, but never lost his love for Iceland. Now mystery readers can enjoy the country along with Bates in his Officer Gunnhildur novels, the second of which, Cold Comfort, is just out in the U.S.
Frozen Assets, Bates’s first book featuring Officer Gunnhildur “Gunna” Gisladottir–a single mother of three children–won critical acclaim on this side of the Atlantic. Booklist noted of this work: “Fans of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavík mysteries will want to add Bates to their reading lists.” Similarly, Publishers Weekly wrote: “[A] crackling fiction debut … palpable authenticity.”
Quentin, it’s great to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Could we begin things with a discussion of your connection to Iceland?
The links to Iceland go back a long way. The short version of the story is that I was offered a chance to work in Iceland for a year or so, the idea being to use this as a gap year before going to university. But things rarely work out the way they are planned and the gap year turned into a gap decade, during which I acquired a family and a new profession. We lived in the north and west of Iceland, for part of that time in my wife’s home village where sometimes weeks would go by without hearing English spoken.
We travel to Iceland a couple of times a year and would go more often if finances, work commitments, etc permitted. As it is, I follow what’s happening in Iceland quite closely, especially since the financial crash in 2008 when everything came so badly unstuck. So most days I’ll speak to someone in Iceland. Skype is a godsend.
What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I could write a book about this alone… It’s a very odd place in many ways and the closer you look, the odder it becomes. The Reykjavík area with its suburbs and neighbouring towns are one thing, while the rest of Iceland is another, and there is a huge divide between the two in terms of attitudes, the pace of life and just the scenery.
Iceland is at the edge of the habitable world, with the Arctic circle kissing the north coast. It’s a tough place to live, and in the past it was a great deal tougher. This, coupled with the sparse population, the isolation for centuries, the rapid entry into the 20th century, the distances between settlements and the fact that once past city limits, you can be on your own all contribute to giving Icelanders a unique mindset and a frontier mentality that is fascinating to explore. These are people who are very much products of their landscape, while city dwellers in Reykjavík are still in a process of adjustment.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Absolutely. I could have written a story or two set in the dull market town down the road from where I live, but I doubt it would have interested many readers. So the location is highly important and I set out place it prominently as a character in its own right.
There are plenty of Reykjavík murder mysteries already, so to begin with I purposely set out to use the countryside as a setting rather than Reykjavík. That’s not entirely the way things worked out, as the story in Frozen Out (Frozen Assets in the U.S.) developed in its own organic way, which took the story to Reykjavík.
I don’t know how other writers work, but I do visualise scenes and incidents as taking place in particular places, so hopefully the sense of place filters in. What also presents a few problems is that it’s a very small country – 300,000 people and the world has (reputedly) more speakers of Klingon than Icelandic – so setting something in a small town is fraught with pitfalls. I do use a few real places outside the Reykjavík area, but invented a loosely disguised fictional town for some of the action. Hvalvík could be any fishing village in Iceland, but I placed it on the south coast about 40 minutes drive from Reykjavík – which is realistic enough as the property boom prompted a lot of people to move out of the city, turning some of the rural places into commuter towns.
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 pay a lot of attention to the location. Much of the books is envisaged in this or that location, although I’m not certain how much of that makes the page. But it’s definitely important to me as background to visualising scenes.
The third Gunna story, which I’m close to finishing the first draft of now, is set entirely outside the Reykjavík area and takes place in the regional town and the surrounding countryside Gunna comes from. In this one the backdrop of high mountains, deep fjords and isolated farms is a vital component of visualising the story.
How does Officer Gunnhildur interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster?
Gunna comes from the western fjords of Iceland – and area of small villages, remote farms, high mountains and travel is difficult in the winter when there is snow on the ground. These days she lives in the (fictional) village of Hvalvík, half an hour or so from Reykjavík, where she now works. She has had a chequered past, used to live in Reykjavík, and cordially dislikes the place.
Her outlook largely mirrors my own feelings about Reykjavík. Until the boom years, it was a pleasant, rather sleepy place that had a character all of its own. These days everything has changed, and the change has been very rapid. Now there’s glass and concrete everywhere. It’s a very different place with a very distinct atmosphere of change about it, but with a consciousness that there are plenty more changes yet to be made before it settles into its new character.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (ie those who actually live in your novels’ setting) reviewers think, for example. If published in a non English-speaking country, are your books in translation in that country, and if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
So far, no. I know that Frozen Out has been sold in Iceland, as I’ve seen it in shops and half of the libraries in the country have copies, but so far not a single review or mention in Iceland apart from an interview in a business magazine.
I’m not quite sure why this is, and I may be skating on thin ice here, but there is an element of a cultural Mafia in Iceland and one needs to have the right introductions. Although I’ve had personal messages from people there who have read the book and spoke highly of it, in general Icelanders are suspicious of outsiders who write about their country in a less than entirely complimentary way that doesn’t quite tally with the warts-and-all approach that I prefer. I’m deeply fond of Iceland and my links with it go very deep, but that doesn’t mean I’m in any way blind to the darker side of what goes on there.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I have, but nothing serious (yet). In Frozen Out I managed to place parking meters in the town of Hafnarfjördur – where parking is free, while Reykjavík does have parking meters.
Of the Gunnhildur 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?
This is from Frozen Out/ Frozen Assets. Grandakaffi is very real, the small docker’s café by the harbour in Reykjavík. For some reason, I find anything that involves food to be highly evocative of place.
“She drove slowly past the slipways and the remnants of the old town, where rusting houses clad in corrugated iron were gradually being replaced with steel and glass, and past Kaffivagninn. She thought of stopping there, but since office types had discovered the old dockers’ eaterie on the quay, it had gone upmarket and lost some of its attraction.
“Further along and beyond walking distance from the office district, she pulled up on a patch of waste ground opposite Grandakaffi among a cluster of taxis, pickup trucks and a bus at the end of its route. For a moment she admired the trawlers in their blue-and-white Grandi livery at the quayside and listened as a group of men in paint-spattered overalls engaged in a friendly argument in some eastern European language as they made their way from a half-painted ship over the waste ground towards the café. They fell silent as they noticed her uniform, nudging each other into silence as they passed her. Gunna fell into step behind the men, trying not to look as if she was following them to the café, but she could sense their discomfort.
“In the sunshine half a dozen men sat over large meals and newspapers around rickety tables and Gunna scanned the faces quickly, catching the eye of an elderly man with a pinched face that looked as if a square meal coming his way was a rarity. He nodded imperceptibly as she passed, and carried on with his bowl of soup.
“The group of workmen were at the counter, bargaining with a tiny oriental woman in broken English. As Gunna approached, the woman looked past them in relief and the men fell silent. Gunna wondered what had brought her to Iceland.
“‘What’re y’looking for?’ The woman asked in perfect Icelandic that marked her down as a second generation immigrant.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My favourite writer at the moment tends to be the one at the top of the to-be-read pile. Right now I’m reading Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, set in Sicily. On the non-fiction side I also have Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s excellent trio of travelogues tracing the movements of the 13th century Moroccan traveller Ibn-Batuttah.
Old favourites that I grew up with are Maugham, Hardy and Kipling. Then there was George Orwell, Saki, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, all of which I notice is old-fashioned stuff.
As for crime, I’ll happily devour most things. I can always go back to Simenon and to Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and do so. I enjoy Nordic crime, especially Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankell and Matti Joensuu, but tend to steer clear of them while I’m writing the first draft of a book, hence reading more Camilleri, Jean-Claude Izzo, Leonardo Sciascia, Yasmina Khadra. The trouble is, the more you read, the more good stuff pops up that demands to be explored.
I’m not really qualified to say much about influences. I’m certain that most of those listed up there are influences, although I try to keep other people’s voices from seeping in. On the other hand, I did set out to produce work that would appeal to a certain readership while also consciously avoiding being a mimic. I noticed when reading crime fiction translated into English that often the evocation of place is thin or even missing, presumably because those writers write primarily for a domestic readership that doesn’t require that level of description.
Going back to the Master, Simenon manages to convey atmosphere and place effortlessly. There are only a few strokes of the brush and you’re transported to Paris, or Liége, le Le Havre, or Groningen. It’s a lesson that less can often be more. There’s often no need to labour the point, but on the other hand Iceland isn’t Paris and maybe more scene-setting is needed for a less familiar location. There’s something of a fine line to tread here. It’s important to set the scene, but without sounding like a travel guide.
One thing in particular that I wanted to do differently was to get away from the idea of gloomy Nordic crime fiction. Much Nordic crime fiction is extremely dark, but I like an injection of humour here and there. Dark and funny can go together, as long as the humour is suitably dark as well.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
That’s an awkward one. I’m quite happy at the moment shuttling between England and Iceland, although I’d like to be spending more time in Iceland. Having two languages, cultures and homes can be confusing and hard work at times, but it also broadens the mind wonderfully.
What’s next for Gunna?
In Cold Comfort, just published in the U.S. and due for publication in the UK, Germany and Holland this year, Gunna has to deal with an escaped convict on a spree of settling old scores, plus the murder of a TV fitness guru, all of which happens in and around the Reykjavík area. The next book that I’m at work on now is set entirely in the Westfjords, which were my own stamping ground for a few years. It opens with Gunna on leave to attend a family funeral, but she’s called on to investigate the discovery of some old bones on a remote farm nearby. Things escalate when the manager of a local factory is found frozen solid in his own cold store. The scary part is that Gunna’s mother plays a part in this one.
I have plans and outlines for further books, some that will have to be set in or around Reykjavík, and others that will have the focus elsewhere.
Quentin, thanks much again for talking with us at Scene of the Crime. Good luck with your series.
For more information on Quentin Bates, visit his homepage.