Quentin Bates

Cheltenham Literature Festival – In Cold Blood: Scandi And Nordic Noir

I’m attending a few events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this year and “In Cold Blood: Scandi And Nordic Noir” was the first. The billed panel was Barry Forshaw, Quentin Bates and Søren Sveistrup but there was a last minute change of programme and Søren was replaced by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. Who knows how the discussions would have played out with a different panel but Jakob offered a very informed and engaging insight into Scandinavian crime fiction.

The discussion took the audience on a whirlwind journey charting the rise in popularity of scandi / nordic crime fiction, both in print and on television.

The general consensus was that the publication of Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which, although a mix of literary and crime fiction, set the stage for other translated fiction to reach a wider audience in the UK. For crime fiction the real breakthrough was the Millennium series from Stieg Larsson when it became easy to spot people reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when out and about. These weren’t the first translated fiction books to be available but series like that by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall with the 10 novel sequence of Martin Beck / The Story of a Crime didn’t receive the same broad audience. Following the success of the Stieg Larsson series there has been the rise of the publishing ‘superstar’ in the success of Joe Nesbo and his books and subsequent films.

On the small screen the Wallander series led the way, especially when those averse to subtitles could watch the Brannagh version in English. The breakthrough for series broadcast in their original language but with subtitles was The Killing which opened up the opportunities for the success of series like The Bridge. As well as acceptance of the subtitles is also the audience exposure to series where the characters are taken on a longer journey than we might be used to.

There was much discussion about the content of the crime fiction – how the stories and themes can be used to demonstrate the mistreatment of women, the failures of the welfare state and how, in countries that faced occupation in the Second World War, incidents can often have their roots in behaviour or attitudes from that period.

It was an interesting and informative panel and we all stayed awake which was quite a feat considering how hot the room was! And the final consensus – that while there might have been a perceivable rise in the prevalence of ‘scandi noir’ it’s now an established part of the crime fiction landscape.

Barry Forshaw – reviews crime fiction for a number of national newspapers and is the author of a number of guides to crime fiction including Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

 

 

 

Quentin Bates – author of the Gunnhildur “Gunna” Gísladóttir series, set in Iceland and translator of Icelandic books into English including books by Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir. The lasted book in the series, Cold Breath, was published 11th October. 

 

 

 

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen – a  Senior Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature in the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) and acting Director of Comparative Literature at University College London and author of ‘Scandinavian Crime Fiction’ which is aimed at an audience with an interest in the rise of the this translated fiction.

 

 

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Thin Ice – Quentin Bates

Title – Thin Ice

Author – Quentin Bates

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s good to see that while Quentin Bates is forging a new career as a translator of Icelandic fiction he has also managed to find time to continue writing his ‘Officer Gunnhildur’ series. Thin Ice is the fifth book in the series, and although it was a while since I’d read a story from the series I didn’t feel as if I’d forgotten anything important and I’m sure this would read well as a standalone.

When two petty criminals (Magni and Ossi) fail to find their getaway driver after robbing one of Reykjavik’s main drug dealers they need an alternative escape route and the solution is to hijack a car forcing the woman driver and her daughter (Erna and Tinna Lund) to assist them.

As the story unfolds it’s something of a comedy of errors as, without a plan, the car runs out of petrol and they are forced to keep improvising. The relationship between the two men is strained and as one steps up to the challenges it’s not perhaps the one you expect. Taking the hostages isn’t their finest move and the characters of the two women start to impact on their plans – especially the budding relationship between Magni and Tinna Lind.

The story switches between the criminals and their efforts to escape to the sun  and Gunna and her colleagues who are investigating the death of a thief in a house fire and the disappearance of a mother and her daughter on a shopping trip (who could that be??). It’s interesting reading the story from both perspectives.

One of the joys of Bates’ writing is Gunna and her family. Her home life never seems to be on an even keel but she deals with whatever life throws at her with equanimity. She certainly doesn’t fit in with any of the cliches of the traditional detective in crime fiction, other than her dogged determination to get to the bottom of a mystery. Having said that you could read the book as a standalone, if you haven’t read the previous books you will have missed some of the key developments in Gunna’s life, and the development of the relationships that are important to her, which would be a shame.

An enjoyable and atmospheric read with a thrilling climax this is much less depressing than more conventional  ‘Icelandic Noir’.

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An Interview with Quentin Bates – author of Thin Ice

One of the co-founders of Iceland Noir, and translator of Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland‘ series, Quentin Bates is currently celebrating the publication of Thin Ice, the fifth full length novel in his own ‘Gunnhildur’ series. To mark this he is the focus of perhaps one of the longest blog tours ever – which demonstrates his popularity amongst the crime fiction community. 

Here he talks about one critical aspect of any Icelandic novel – the weather.

‘You don’t like the weather? Then just wait a while and it’ll change. It’s almost an Icelandic cliché that you can expect four different kinds of weather in a single day. With weather fronts rolling across the Atlantic all winter long, it’s never going to be anything but changeable.

‘For me Iceland is less about the magnificent landscape, high mountains and lush green valleys, than about the constantly-changing weatherscape. It becomes ingrained after a while, to the point that for every scene I write, every new chapter and situation, the first thing is to establish what kind of a day it might be, even if it doesn’t rate a mention in whatever I’m writing.

‘Thin Ice is set in the beginning of winter, it’s getting dark early. It’s cold and by the coast it’s windy and wet, but upcountry where part of the action takes place, it has already started to snow, to the consternation of the four fugitives the story revolves around. They find themselves snowed in as both the police and the underworld search and hope to find them first.

‘Winter in Iceland can be harsh. It can rain and snow alternately for days and weeks at a time, although those who hail from the north coast or the Westfjords will snort with disdain at the mention of a heavy snowfall in Reykjavík, where, according to the hardy northerners, it just drizzles with rain all winter long and Reykjavík grinds to a halt as soon as there’s an inch of the white stuff on the ground.

‘Fair enough, in the south it rains more than it snows. Sometimes there can be a whole winter without a significant fall of snow. In the north, where the north-easterly storms regularly batter the coast, a winter without serious snow is a rarity. But it’s not all about snow. Summers can be chilly, damp affairs during which the sun hardly breaks through the cloud cover. Other summers can be brilliantly bright as a clear blue sky, not a breath of wind and scorching sunshine can turn the north into an absolute paradise.

‘Autumn can be a matter of a couple of days between the sunshine and the first howling gale of winter as the anti-cyclones start to queue up out over the deep Atlantic. The same goes for spring. It can be snowing one day, followed by blazing sunshine the next that sets the streets awash with meltwater.

‘Weather is crucial to Icelanders. It’s something people are far more conscious of than we are further south. It’s understandable. Until a generation ago, Iceland was a community of predominantly farmers and fishermen. That’s changed, but that’s another story… For those people, being able to predict the weather in an age before even rudimentary forecasting could be the difference between life an death, the difference between survival and starvation.

‘Letting the livestock out too early in the spring could meaning losing your flock to a sudden snowstorm, while failing to take advantage of a few dry days at the height of summer could mean your sheep starving long before the next spring and your family going the same way. The dangers to fishermen working open boats from a shingle beach are glaringly clear. Will the wind still be in the right quarter to bring you home before nightfall, and will the surge of the swell be enough to help bring the boat clear of the water, or could it have worsened enough to smash it to pieces against the rocks?

‘There’s no doubt it makes a great backdrop to a crime story, or any drama. Maybe that’s the appeal of Nordic crime fiction, the merciless background of rocks and snow contrasted against comfortable, safe societies.

‘Sunny? Windy? A cold wind from the north that brings snow with it, or a warmer wind from the south that ushers in a thaw? Snow is dramatic for a story set in Reykjavík, but rain is more likely to be realistic. But if you don’t like it, just wait an hour or two and it’ll change.’

So if you plan to attend Iceland Noir later this year – you’ve been warned!

 

 

Snowblind – Ragnar Jónasson

9781910633038-275x423Title – Snowblind

Author – Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)

Published – 2011 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

Score – 4/5

It’s an odd situation that Ragnar Jónasson has been a familiar face on the crime fiction circuit for some years, but this is the first opportunity for those of us who only read English to judge his ‘Iceland Noir’ credentials and he is not found wanting.

Ari Thór Arason is a recently qualified policeman living in Reykjavik with his medical student girlfriend. When an opportunity for his first posting comes up it’s in Siglufjörður, a small, isolated fishing town right the way up in the north of Iceland. Although his girlfriend is unenthusiastic about the situation he accepts the position and quickly moves, alone, to this close knit community. The setting for the book is incredibly important; the location is particularly isolated, not only is it physically remote but during the winter it is in perpetual darkness and the inclement weather only adds to the difficulties of going to, or escaping from, the town. It’s a small community where people don’t lock their doors and nothing ever happens – but of course if that were the case we wouldn’t need our intrepid detective!

Although Ari Thor is the main character, the story is told from multiple points of view and I found it a little difficult to get a handle on who each character was and what their relevance was to the story – but it all became clear in the end. The story is a ‘small-town’ one, initially involving the seemingly accidental death of a prominent member of the community who is involved in the local dramatic society, something which Ari Thor’s boss believes only requires a perfunctory investigation. Jónasson uses the choice of setting to his advantage, making the most of the conditions as a way of limiting the pool of suspects and adding an extra layer of tension. It’s actually quite surprising how many of the community are outsiders – people hiding from something, whilst those born there are perhaps more prone to seek an escape to the south. It’s perhaps Ari Thor’s position as an outsider that lets him question his boss and pursue the case.

The small town nature of the setting means that the investigation focuses on long hidden secrets, illicit affairs and long held grudges. Jónasson’s writing hones in on the minutiae of the characters’ lives and memories, but pay attention because hidden in all of this detail are clues crucial to the resolution of a number of different threads within the story.

It’s impossible to review this book and not make a reference to Agatha Christie. The reason is that Jónasson is renowned for being a huge fan, having translated fourteen titles into Icelandic. I wouldn’t say that this has obviously influenced his writing style, but the setting is perhaps an Icelandic St Mary Mead where people know, or think they know, each other’s business. The clever plotting, attention to detail and red herrings are certainly in the Christie style.

Snowblind is the first in Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series and there are currently 4 more books to be translated. It’s interesting that the translation is by Quentin Bates, a successful author in his own right who sets his own books in Iceland, although writing them in English. A book can be spoilt by a poor translation, something you only notice when a phrase jars and you’re reminded that the work was originally written in another language. Fortunately, as you would expect, there is no such issue here.

Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on My Little Pile of Rocks.

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Frozen Out – Quentin Bates

91phOw6IdQLTitle – Frozen Out (AKA Frozen Assets)

Author – Quentin Bates

Published – 2011

Genre – Crime fiction

This proved to be a good choice as the second of my Icelandic reads.  This is the first in the series by Bates featuring Officer Gunnhildur “Gunna” Gisladottir  – a single mother and policewoman managing the tiny police force in the village of Hvalvik. This is a much more rural setting than Where the Shadows Lie, with more of the feel of the Iceland beyond Reykjavik and the usual tourist haunts.

The book opens with the early morning discovery of a body on the beach as the local fishermen are setting off for the day. A corpse is big news and deemed beyond the capabilities of the local officers, so Gunna must work with her colleagues from Reykjavik (just an hour away) on the investigation. She is convinced that there is more to the death than simply ‘drunk falls in sea’ and is proactive in driving the investigation forwards. When her superiors discourage her from making further progress her stubborn streak shows through.

As with Where the Shadows Lie the book is set against the backdrop of the financial crisis and the ramifications of the banking disaster. The story features a few different plotlines woven through the book. One is the “Skandalblogger”, an anonymous blogger who seems to have the inside track on both celebrity and political targets with some salacious gossip. There are some political machinations regarding corruption and environmental issues. We also see a fair amount of Gunna’s personal life as she juggles being a mother  and her police duties and there is a possible romance in the offing. Bates lightens the mood with humour, and Gunna is sassy with an unusual style of interrogation.

Gunna makes a great lead character. Described by one of her colleagues as “a big fat lass with a face that frightens horses” she is calm and capable and whilst she seems to be generally happy to take a pragmatic approach she has a stubborn streak when she believes that justice may not be done. She’s a positive character and role model with none of the traditional hang-ups of fictional detectives, although there is some mystery over what happened to her late husband. In fact she reminded me of Thora Gudmundsdottir from the novels by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Perhaps there is too much going on – quite a lot of background and other characters where Gunna could so obviously spend more time taking centre stage. Nevertheless, an enjoyable start to a series that I will want to read more of, and a real feeling of rural Iceland and its people.

If you’re interested in reading the series there is an offer at The Book People of three books for £4.99 – http://www.thebookpeople.co.uk/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/qs_product_tbp?productId=435165&storeId=10001&catalogId=10051&langId=100&searchTerm=bates

Score – 4/5