Friday, June 25, 2021

Icelandic Noir

 "Elma took in the elegant sitting room. A large, imposing canvas hung on one wall, featuring insubstantial figures among a swirl of moss and lava. A Kjarval, Elma saw from the signature at the bottom. That figured: although she didn’t know much about art, she did know that Kjarval was Iceland’s most important painter." -- Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, The Creak on the Stairs (p. 225)

A painting of Iceland by Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885-1972)

If our next planned trip really happens (unlike some of our other recent failures due to the aftermath of the pandemic), we'll be going to Iceland. I'm looking forward to seeing the far northern landscapes, the villages, the volcanic activity, the birds and other wildlife, and all the other fascinating things I hope for. Meanwhile, my sister recommended an Icelandic mystery story set in a small Icelandic village called Akranes. The quoted passage introduced me to the painter Kjarval, who painted Icelandic scenery that I hope to see -- very interesting!

The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir,
English Edition 2020.

In the novel, Elma, a police officer has recently returned to Akranes from Reykjavík. The two places aren't far apart, but the rugged landscape means a tunnel is necessary to connect them by direct road, and everyone recalls how isolated little Akranes once was. Elma's first assignment, the center of the novel, is to solve the case of a brutal and seemingly unmotivated murder of a young mother of two boys -- an unlikely victim:  

"Statistically speaking, the average Icelandic murder victim was not a mother of two in her thirties. Since 2000, around twenty men and ten women had been murdered." (p. 126). 

As Elma and her colleagues try to identify the victim and find the culprit, they discover a series of past evils among a small number of Akranes residents.  The officers' driving around the area in all kinds of weather helps set the scene where the murder has taken place, and the background that's being discovered.The small-town atmosphere of Akranes is very clear: everyone knows each other, and there's a clear social order that protects the richer and more socially well-placed residents. Understanding the relationships of a number of people who turn up in the search for a motive is a clear part of the novel. Although the victim left the town long ago, her school friends and many other contacts still live there, and the police must question them to try to figure out why the victim suddenly returned to the town and thus met her death.

As in many police procedurals, the investigation is punctuated with stops for food, though not many full meals -- mostly coffee breaks. For example, almost every woman that they interview about the victim's past offers the police refreshments. Some of these are interestingly local to the area. 
"Guðrún had made coffee and laid the table when they arrived, so they felt they had no choice but to sit down and accept the cake she offered them, a traditional randalína made of layers of sponge and jam." (p. 110). 

"‘I hear that Akranes is becoming ever more popular with tourists,’ Elma remarked, accepting the cup of coffee Gréta offered her." (p. 131).

"She [Anna] invited Elma to take a seat at a small kitchen table covered in a flowery plastic cloth and put some of the doughnut twists known as kleinur and a cup of coffee in front of her." (p. 206).  

"Vilborg invited Elma to sit down on a curry-yellow sofa and offered her some tea, which she accepted." (p. 250). 

When they aren't out investigating, the officers have pastry on hand in the station:

"If this had been America they’d have had doughnuts, but here they had to make do with gingerbread biscuits, she thought, letting one dissolve in her mouth with the hot coffee." (p. 89). 

Children in the book also are depicted eating things like American-style cereal. There are also quite a few food scenes in the flashbacks to the victim's childhood, where she is either starved by her dysfunctional mother, or helped by a neighbor named Solla: 

"She wondered if it was too early to go to Solla’s. Her stomach was rumbling and Solla often had something nice to eat at weekends: freshly baked bread or cinnamon rolls sprinkled with sugar." (p. 166). 

When Elma and her colleagues aren't being offered hospitality, the officers eat fast food:
"The Akranes speciality, a deep-fried hot dog, tasted exactly as she had remembered. And the melted cheese, chips and burger sauce more than satisfied all her junk-food cravings." (p. 115). 
The Akranes lighthouse is the location of the victim's body in the novel. (source)

I really hope my trip to Iceland will not be another casualty of the global pandemic. I don't know if I'll get to taste the foods I read about, or see the specific sights of Akranes -- but I have very high expectations for what I'll be able to see during our trip.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander. 


Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I hope you get to go! We've just watched a documentary on difficult roads and travelling in Iceland seems challenging. But I hope that's your only challenge.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

Be sure to talk to Erika before you plan your trip. She went two years ago and knows much of the ins and outs of the island. I'd love to read that book. I always love a good mystery.

Story Time said...

I've also been reading the very hard-to-put-down Detective Erlendur series, set in Iceland, by Arnaldur Indriðason. I hope your trip happens!

Jackie McGuinness said...

Iceland is on my list, not so much for my husband. We haven't made any travel plans as yet, other than driving trips. I am missing our travels but will wait and see what happens. Summers we usually spend at home as John loves to golf. We could plan a golf trip but the border remains closed.
I am adding that book to my list and I do like that painting.

Iris Flavia said...

Brrr... I´d be rather off to Australia.

Tina said...

The setting and the mystery sound appealing. Haven't heard of this book but will add to my tbr.

Iceland would be an amazing trip and I hope you get to go.

Carola Bartz said...

I really hope that you can go. About five years ago or so my husband was there and was shocked about the prices. But he did like the landscape. It's definitely an interesting island. Like you, I try to read books that take place in the locations I want to visit. Even though the translation of the food items might not always be accurate it's intersting to see what their local food is like.

DVArtist said...

A dream of mine to go to Iceland. Hope you make it there.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

One of our friends went to Iceland last Christmas, and she had a delightful time. I'm especially intrigued with the population's love for books. Christmas is a time for jólabókaflóð, a "book flood," when the country publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, and a holiday where every person in Iceland expects to receive at least one book as a gift. And how about this: "According to a study conducted by Bifröst University in 2013, 50% of them read at least 8 books per year, while an impressive 93% of them read at least one."

I wonder what it is like to live among so many readers. Would a society of readers be a better society, more tolerant, kinder?

Debra Eliotseats said...

Adore that painting. My mom has been dying to go to Iceland but I just can't get the appeal. I hope you get to go. Maybe after visiting vicariously through you I will want to plan my own trip.

Vicki said...

I really hope you get to go to Iceland, and of course share lots of photos with us!

Anne@HeadFullofBooks said...

I am always delighted when I learn about artists through literature. What a delightful post. I hope your trip happens! My Sunday Salon post

thecuecard said...

I'll have to search for more of Kjarval's art works .... very cool impressions. I did not know of his works before. I think your Icelandic trip will be great .... from the lighthouse to the volcano rock you'll be fascinated. But when will you go?

David M. Gascoigne, said...

My wife went to Iceland with her daughter a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Word of caution, however - it is very expensive, hardly surprising really in a country where almost everything has to be imported.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Oh How I hope you go! Take me with you!!!

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I read something once about how Iceland has the largest percentage of authors per population of any country and also a very high percentage of readers. I was going to look that up before I commented, but know I'll forget to come back if I do. I enjoyed this review and have noted the book to my TBR list. (Sorry for the two comments -- hit send too soon!)

Unknown said...

We just returned from Iceland a week ago. It’s was fabulous! We drove the road ring, whale watching cruise, the golden circle and saw the volcano erupting. I believe they have now waived the Covid test upon arrival if you are vaccinated. Have a wonderful time! I’ll have to check out this book! No blog but you are welcome to email.