Iceland Noir: Journey to the glacier with Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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Unlike some literary conferences, Iceland Noir (21-23 Nov 2014) went to pains to go beyond the panel discussions, interviews and networking sessions the publishing world is used to. Yes, there were fine dinners, and there was a chilly crime walk with author readings in the streets of Reykjavik too. But the crowning glory of the event was a tour guided by Iceland’s own queen of crime, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, to the west of the island and out onto the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

At the tip of this spur of rugged lava jutting out into the North Atlantic – with its fjords and basalt formations – is a volcano capped by a glacier called Snaefellsjokull. It was this region that inspired Jules Verne to write Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but more pertinent to Iceland Noir is its influence on Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who set her novel My Soul to Take at the foot of this once mighty volcano.


After a long bus journey from Reykjavik up the coast of Iceland, passing plenty of sheep and wild horses, and stony formations said to be giants and trolls, we rolled into the tiny resort of Hellnar. It’s on a rocky beach, lying under a naturally formed stone bridge, that the body of Birna the architect is discovered early in the book. Sigurdardottir took us down to the very spot where she imagined the corpse was found, on some very slippery rocks. She captured the dramatic setting in Chapter 2.

Body on the beach
“Brina looked around her and took a deep breath. She peered through the thin fog hovering above the water and watched a pair of seagulls plunging to compete for food. Neither bird won and they rose back up with a great fluttering of wings. Then they vanished into the denser bank of fog that hung a little farther out. It was low tide and wet seaweed lay spread across the rocky expanse. This was an unusual beach: no sand, only boulders of all shapes and sizes, their surfaces smoothed by the passage of a million tides. The position of the beach was unique as well: a small cove surrounded by high cliffs of columnar basalt, which could have been custom-designed by the Creator as a high-rise dwelling for seabirds.”

Yrsa Sigurdardottir points to where Brina met her end.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir points to where Birna met her end.

The beach, cliffs and rocky arch are even more striking in real life – though on our visit there was no bludgeoned body lying on the rocks, as eventually happens in the book. Nor was there the corpse of a whale upwind. In My Soul to Take, lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir takes it on herself to investigate Birna’s death and she and her German boyfriend Matthew must contend with the stench of the rotting whale. The dead sea mammal came directly from the author’s own experience visiting the beach.

“When we came here to stay there was a beached whale and somebody had put a dead sheep on top of the whale, so that was double gross. And weird. What’s even stranger was that someone had carved, like graffiti, J plus SS in a heart on the whale’s skin. Very romantic…” she said.

Down by the bay
She left out the sheep and sicko loveheart details when she wrote My Soul to Take – real life really is strange than fiction – but included plenty more local detail like the grassy farmlands, which are separated here and there by wide lava flows, and the sea coves. There’s a concrete jetty at one end of the beach too, which appears in the book. As Thora notes, there are no rubber tyres hanging on the pier to protect boats that come into port at Hellnar, indicating that it’s not often used. Behind the jetty and beach, the open green sea is the same stretch of water that one of the suspects paddles across in his kayak, avoiding Thora and Matthew, in the story.

Imagine a kayak paddling across the cove behind the jetty and you've got a scene from the book.
Imagine a kayak paddling across the cove behind the jetty and you’ve got a scene from the book.

“The people were waving even harder now, and Thorstur thought he recognised the woman as a recent arrival at the hotel. It looked like that woman who was asking about the architect when he walked through reception the day before. He had no intention of talking to her. Who knew what she might ask? Calmly he turned the canoe back round. Before setting off, he looked instinctively at the paddle, half expecting still to see blood on it. Of course, it was gone. He had washed it off himself,” reads Chapter 13.

Following an exploration of the cove, Yrsa Sigurdardottir took us to a hotel she stayed in, which inspired the hotel in the book. In the story, it’s owned by Jonas, who is Thora’s client and who is a suspect in Birna’s murder. In real life, it’s a good spot to get some Icelandic cod for lunch. The author recalled her stay here being spoiled a little by an unwanted visitor to the hotel bar. “There’s a cabin on the sea here and in that cabin there was someone who used to be a member of Iceland’s parliament. He used to come to the hotel every night to get drunk. He was totally awful,” she said, adding: “He’s probably dead now.”

The quaint black church
Nearby there’s a church and graveyard, which also appear in the book. Within the church, Thora and Matthew look for clues as to why Birna was killed. They also scour the gravestones for names of local people who may have been victims of some long forgotten crime that Birna may have uncovered. The church itself is a charming little place, painted in black tar on the outside to protect against the weather, with white doors and window frames. Inside it’s plain but also quaint and well appointed.

The remote church could hold some answers in Thora's mystery.
The remote church could hold some answers in Thora’s mystery.

In Chapter 15 she wrote: “The church was on an area of grass not far from the beach. It stood at the top of a little hill; tiny, built from jet-black timber, it reminded Thora of the churches she had drawn in primary school – little buildings with a small tower and a cross at the top. Hers had been much more cheerfully coloured, in fact, but she had to admit that black suited this church. The white-painted windows and door set it off nicely.”

And she explained her first impressions of it when we poked around in the churchyard and tried the key to the church door, given to us by the hotel receptionist. “I didn’t really know about this church, but then I went in and had a look and I liked the atmosphere,” said Yrsa.

If little Kristin isn’t in the graveyard, where are her remains?

A chilling piece of history
During the long coach ride, the author told us some of the island’s ghost stories. One particular type of ghost was also an inspiration for the book – that of the exposed baby. While many cultures have ghost stories, not many involve the ghosts of newborns. The heartbreaking story behind these Icelandic ghosts lies in the country’s history.

Centuries ago, it was illegal for a woman to get pregnant out of wedlock. And it was also illegal to get married unless the man owned land. Sometimes, breaking these rules was punishable by death, so poor women who got pregnant would hide the fact and take their baby to term, then leave it to die of exposure on a lava field. However, in the country’s folklore, the baby’s ghost could return and if it managed to turn a circle around you it would take you away with it. The way to avoid this is to point the ghost in the direction of its mother.

In the book, several characters claim to hear the crying of babies at night coming from the fields. This might be a ghostly echo of the book’s prologue, in which a four-year-old girl is abandoned to die in a freezing storage hold dug under one of the farms. Unfortunately, it was daytime, so we weren’t able to photograph one of these ghosts for you…

And to the glacier…
Our tour was, of course, centred around the Snaefellsjokull glacier which occasionally glared down at us through the clouds while we explored the beach, jetty, church and hotel, minding out for ghosts. We couldn’t actually get onto the glacier because of the weather conditions. But it’s an important component of the story, and in Chapter 9 the glacier’s connection with the supernatural is revealed.

Main character Thora explains why Jonas is worried that his hotel might be haunted, which is part of the plotline: “In fact it’s not that unusual in a place like this, which has long been considered a centre for belief in the supernatural, so to speak. Legend has it that the glacier is inhabited by a man named Bardur who went inside it in a bout of depression after his daughter drifted away to Greenland on an iceberg. He’s considered to be the guardian spirit of the area, and the glacier’s supposed to have supernatural powers. I don’t know whether the powers belong to this Bardur or the glacier itself.”

We glimpsed that glacier, and it didn't look pleased with us, staring down over the lava flow.
We glimpsed that glacier, and there was certainly something chilling about the way it looked down on us.

At 1446 meters tall, it’s not on the island’s highest peak, and it’s miniscule when compared to the mighty Vatnajokull, which is the largest glacier in Europe. “Snaefellsjokull has had a special place in the hearts of Icelanders since early settlement,” explains Yrsa. “It was for ages believed to be Iceland’s tallest mountain, until it was actually measured and turned out to be number 17 on the list – how the mighty have fallen seems appropriate. But despite this it is known as the king of Icelandic mountains. The mountain has inspired poets and authors throughout the ages and some of them have been foreign – most notably Jules Verne. For those interested in mysticism, Snaefellsjokull is considered one of the seven greatest energy spots on the planet. Hopefully the mountain will not fall down this list in future when they find a way to measure this.”

For the full story, we recommend you read My Soul to Take, and we hope this has been an interesting glimpse into how Nordic writers like Yrsa Sigurdardottir use not just the setting and landscape but also the local folklore, peculiar events and overall atmosphere in their work. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

This concludes our run of articles on Iceland Noir 2014. Next, the conference moves to Shetland for one year, and you can find out more about this exciting prospect here.

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