There has been quite a buzz building up about the young Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson. The first of his novels to be translated into English, Snowblind, landed in the top 10 ebooks on Amazon, and went to the top of the Scandinavian crime fiction chart. It brings with it a unique blend of Golden Age stylings and a Nordic noir backdrop, and you’ll be able to read our review here soon on Crime Fiction Lover. We first met him as one of the new talents we featured when we went to Iceland Noir 2014, and now that his book’s out he joins us for a full interview…
Snowblind is set in one of the most remote and quiet places in Iceland. What made you choose that as your location?
I have a strong connection with Siglufjörður, the northern-most town in Iceland. My father grew up there and my grandparents lived there. I visited them every summer, and still spend time in Siglufjörður each year. My grandfather even wrote a series of books about the history of the town. Siglufjörður is a place that I felt would be very fitting for a crime novel. It is very isolated, surrounded by high mountains on one side and the sea on the other. It is only accessible via a mountain tunnel, and is very dark and often snowbound in wintertime.
How would you describe your detective Ari Thor?
Ari Thor is a few years younger than I am, and he probably shares some of my qualities – hopefully the good ones! But what mostly defines him is the fictional fact that he lost his parents at a young age and has had to make his way in the world completely on his own. He has therefore found it hard to build up strong relationships with other people, but he has a keen sense of justice and is hopefully clever enough to solve a crime or two.
He is fairly inexperienced to begin with, but grows with the series in his capacity as a policeman, making some mistakes along the way, of course. I admire his determination, and his ability to stay strong in difficult circumstances. In Snowblind he is very much an outsider, treated coldly, often with disdain, and very much affected by the treacherous, claustrophobic weather. But he grits his teeth and gets on with the job. He’s not a tough guy – he loves to swim and he is taking piano lessons, which may be another mistake!
What was your journey into crime fiction and which authors have influenced you most?
I’ve always read crime fiction: Agatha Christie, to begin with, and then other Golden Age writers. I also enjoy contemporary crime, such as PD James. Christie and James were probably the greatest influences but in one way or another I’ve probably been inspired by most writers I’ve read. One other writer I’d particularly like to mention is the brilliant Peter Temple from Australia; his book Truth is like nothing else you’ve ever read.
Which of the two have proved most useful in your writing career: your legal or your journalistic background?
My journalistic background probably. I’ve tried to stay away from writing about law, lawyers or legal complications, in order to keep some distance between my day job and my writing. But in the Dark Iceland series I did create a journalist, a girl called Ísrún who is not featured in Snowblind, but is coming soon. She has benefited quite a lot from my experiences as a TV reporter.
Why do you think crime fiction is so popular in Iceland when there is so little crime there?
It is probably popular precisely because there is little crime in Iceland, but for that same reason it is also often challenging for writers. I want to keep my stories as believable as possible, so it’s all about thinking up scenarios which could happen in Iceland. The dramatic climate and landscape does help to make this easier.
Having translated Agatha Christie novels, set up a branch of the CWA in Iceland, and co-founded the Iceland Noir international festival, you have strong links with Britain. How do you think Icelandic and British readers compare?
I don’t think there is much difference really but if I had to name one thing, I would perhaps imagine that British readers might in general be more familiar with some of the Golden Age writers who have influenced me, simply because not all of them were as widely translated as Agatha Christie, at least not into Icelandic. I am thrilled by the British interest in Nordic crime and, more recently, Icelandic writers. There is a lot more to come.