Writing in Ice isn’t a crime novel. Let’s get that out of the way. This is a non fiction book – a memoir focusing on the origins of Magnus Jonson, the Icelandic-American cop created by English author Michael Ridpath. It’s also a love letter to Iceland and its people, whom Ridpath has come to admire and feel connected to. It draws on the author’s blog of the same name.
Michael Ridpath is a former City trader who kicked off his crime writing career in 1995 with a financial thriller, Free to Trade. At the time he wrote it, he had no idea that Iceland would be such a huge part of his writing journey. Free to Trade was a success and seven more titles in the same vein followed over the next 10 years. Then a manuscript was unexpectedly rejected by his publisher and Ridpath found himself branching out and looking for ideas and locations for new stories, a quest which led him to the magnificent volcanic atoll known as Iceland. Although he’s published five standalone novels with various settings, Writing in Ice focuses on his Magnus Iceland mysteries.
As he recounts his career, Ridpath admits that at one point it was a toss up between Saudi Arabia and Iceland for this new police procedural series but in a reversal of global warming the author chose the frozen north. Main character Magnus Jonson is an American-Icelandic detective and the series has been successful enough to spawn five novels and two novellas to date – the most recent full length work, Edge of Nowhere, was published in 2018.
When Ridpath published Free to Trade, publishers around the world picked it up for their local territories. That created an opportunity to tour the US, Australia, France and Scandinavia but the author’s agent didn’t think Iceland, with a population the size of Coventry, was a priority. Ridpath went anyway. At that time Keflavik airport was an adjunct to the US military base, formerly an important Cold War outpost. The drive into Reykjavik revealed a unique landscape, sparse, flat and comprised black volcanic soil. The people, sights and even the local belief in the hidden people, elf like creatures, appealed to Ridpath but at that time Iceland didn’t seem an option for a financial crimes author.
That wouldn’t change until just before the financial crash of 2008. The first Magnus Icelandic novel, Where the Shadows Lie, was published in 2007, when the island was becoming the centre of financial controversy. After that, Ridpath didn’t write about white collar finagling for another decade. Magnus Jonson had arrived in a story about the death of an academic that connected to a chunk of the country’s Viking past stretching back a thousand years.
In Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, Ridpath tells us about the evolution of his American-Icelandic cop, whose father was murdered in Boston and whose mother an alcoholic. We also get a potted history of Iceland, its links to Norway, then Denmark, the British invasion during WWII, the US staging post during the Cold War and the Reagan/Gorbachev summit. We learn a little about the language, which is difficult apparently, and local geology, politics, culture and Ridpath’s favourite places.
Iceland has a literary tradition going back to the ancient Sagas. As well as a guide to his own Icelandic novels, Ridpath adds an appendix covering the local authors, books and films that give a real flavour of Iceland, including the crime writers Yrsa Sigardardóttir and Lilja Sigardardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and two new favourites, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir and Sólveig Pálsdóttir. This is a country that had just 56 murders between 1980 and 2015, crimes mostly involving alcohol and/or domestic abuse and not requiring a Sherlock Holmes to solve them, so invention and imagination are essential.
Writing in Ice is a brief and engaging book. It will appeal most to fans of the Magnus Jonson series, but also to wider readers of Nordic noir. Ridpath’s approach is light-hearted and easy, and he provides some insight into the writing process. This is not a comprehensive guide to the island – it’s slightly episodic, which fits with the inspiration being the blog.
By way of introduction to Iceland and specifically to the author’s work, this is about the right tone and length. Ridpath is respected for his authenticity in Iceland, and readers elsewhere have come to like his version of the country too.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars