Today Reykjavik is just as gloomy and grey as yesterday – perfect, then, for today’s key panel discussion on whether or not Scotland’s crime fiction falls into the Nordic mould.
The answer is certainly ‘NO!’ authors involved agreed, as they answered questions pitched by South African writer Stanley Trollip. So what makes Tartan Noir distinctive from its Scandinavian counterpart?
“Guilt!” said Scots author Craig Roberston. “We write about that a lot in Scotland. And there’s duality – Jekyll and Hyde and that capacity for evil in all of us. We probably write about that far too much too.”
But then there are several similarities with Nordic crime as well. “There’s that dark humour, and also that self-deprecating humour,” said James Oswald author of The Hangman’s Song. “English crime books go back to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers in which class is a factor. They’re more genteel. Scottish books are more egalitarian than in English crime fiction, and I think we share that with Nordic Noir.”
“Social issues, humour and a sense of place – those are the main things we share with Scandinavian crime fiction, I would say,” said Louise Millar, the Scottish-born writer based in London, whose next book will be set in Edinburgh. “I’ve been reading Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and this connection with the land comes through.”
Robertson recently bridged the Scottish and Nordic crime traditions. His latest novel, The Last Refuge, had a Scotsman as the main character but was set in the Faroe Islands. He spent eight days researching the book in Torshavn. The bad weather on these Danish-administrated islands outstrips that of Western Scotland. “It rains constantly,” said Robertson. “It only stopped raining twice, and that was to snow.”
He continued: “If I was in a bar people would come up to me and say, ‘Why are you on you on your own?’ and ask me to join their company. That was great for me because I could ask them about the Faroes and they all wanted to talk.”
He noted a lot of hard drinking on the islands – something common in other Nordic countries and Scotland too. “You know somewhere is right for a book, you just know,” he added.
There was discussion of the darkness, both metaphorical and in the sense that winter nights are long in Scandinavia and Scotland. Perhaps surprisingly, they talked about 24-hour sunshine in summer too. “This endless sun is interesting and it comes through in some Nordic books,” said James Oswald.
From interviews with prime ministers through to sheep breeding and lifestyle journalism, the panelists shared various experiences, and the rest of the day has been equally eclectic. Translators and authors have been discussing the translation of foreign books into Icelandic – not an issue English readers consider that much, but vital for authors looking to reach readers in other cultures.
In the morning, the New Blood panel talked about their experiences, and they included the American David Swatling who lives and works in Amsterdam, as well as new English author Sarah Ward. Icelander Sverrir Berg Steinarsson talked about his first and second novels with Quentin Bates moderating. Authors also talked about their passion for writing, and how authors can tend towards addictive personalities.
The conference so far has been fantastic in introducing Icelandic authors who may be on the cusp of having their novels translated into English. Further names to watch include Jon Ottar Olafsson (a former Iceland policeman), Solveig Palsdottir and Arni Thorarinsson. Aside from crime readings around Reykjavik last night, the Icelandic Crime Syndicate held its annual jazz and reading session in the Salon restaurant on Thursday.
The final panel saw authors Zoe Sharp, Jeffrey Siger, Annamaria Alfieri, Michael Sears and Yrsa Sigurdardottir introducing and explaining their blog Murder is Everywhere. All its contributors set their books outside of North America.