Stella Blómkvist: Iceland’s mystery author, literally

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Today we’re joined by Quentin Bates, translator and publisher at Corylus Books, who introduces an author whose writing he has worked on in great detail, but also whom he’s never met…

Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist front cover Icelandic crime fiction

One of Iceland’s veteran crime writers, Stella Blómkvist has been around for a long time – although it’s only now that the books are appearing in English with the publication of Murder at the Residence in August 2023.

It’s remarkable that the writer whose work appears under the Stella Blómkvist name has managed to remain anonymous for 25 years – especially as Stella’s publisher originally predicted that the pseudonym would be cracked and the author’s identity would become common knowledge within three months.

This closely-guarded anonymity seems to be the key reason why Stella hasn’t made it into English until now. Over the years I’ve tried to push these books to several publishers, who all baulked at the idea of trying to publicise someone who won’t appear at festivals or be around to sign books.

There has been plenty of speculation over Stella’s identity. In Iceland there aren’t many journalists, authors and various public figures (including one former prime minister – no, it’s not him) who haven’t been suggested at some point or other as the reclusive author behind the confident, stylish, razor-tongued, morally ambiguous lawyer of the same name, who has a taste for easy money, whiskey and taking her pleasures where she finds them.

There tends to be a flurry of speculation every time a new Stella story appears, then it fades away again.

Plenty of people claim to be certain they know who the author is – they’ll hint and smile, and decline to let any cats out of bags. Do they know, or are they just guessing? 

For this translator, it has been a new experience. Translating an anonymous author is different from working on material by an author who is no longer with us. With a deceased author, there’s generally a body of work and other resources for a translator to draw on, as well as someone who guards the long-gone author’s legacy and will answer questions. But with an anonymous author, there’s none of that.

The rights manager at Stella’s publisher knows the author’s identity. Stella’s editor doesn’t. Any message to Stella means leaving a note in invisible ink hidden in a folded newspaper on a bench in Reykjavík’s Austurvöllur square between 4.15 and 4.23 on alternate Tuesdays. Actually, no. It’s not like that. But there’s no direct line of communication. That’s unusual, as normally a translator and author will bat questions and answers back and forth. It’s also slightly disconcerting, as the book will appear, and I know whoever’s behind Stella will be able to read it.

The series of novels appeared between 1997 – the same year as a youthful Arnaldur Indriðason’s debut novel – and 2006, after which Stella Blómkvist went quiet. Then in 2012 an angrier, more mature, more rounded, but just as bullshit-intolerant version of Stella came storming back. To date there are 13 novels that take us well into the 21st century. In 2017, the Icelandic television series Stella Blómkvist was made based on the character.

Whoever writes these stories, there’s no doubt that this is someone who knows their stuff, knows how to put a plot together. These stories are also a distilled essence. There are no long, meaningful sighs, no interminable soul-searching. Everything’s there for a reason. There’s more plot in a Stella Blómkvist story than in many novels double the length.

What also shows is that, whether it’s a he or a she (or both) behind Stella, this is someone well read, both Icelandic and wider history and literature, and also who has a familiarity with their hardboiled crime fiction. I’d guess this is someone who has Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Patricia Highsmith on their bedside table.

I can make a few informed guesses of my own about the identity of whoever writes the Stella Blómkvist tales, although having read a good few of the books, and after translating two of them – that’s Murder at the Residence, and next year’s Murder Under the Midnight Sun – I’m no longer curious.

In fact, at this point in the story, I would very much prefer Stella to remain anonymous. It could be someone I know and speak to regularly. It could be someone for whom I already have a huge respect and liking – or there’s the other possibility, that the person behind Stella could be someone the sound of whose name makes my heart sink.

So if Stella’s reading this, please keep things as they are. I don’t want to know. At least, not at the moment.

Murder at the Residence is out 28 August from Corylus Books.

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