One of the biggest stars in the world of crime fiction, Val McDermid, will attend the Iceland Noir literary festival next week. Although none of her books have been translated to Icelandic, blood thirsty readers have sunk their teeth in her books in English or bitten their nails watching Wire in the Blood, a thrilling crime drama based on her series about police profiler Dr Tony Hill.
Val McDermid is a name that every crime fiction reader is familiar with. The Scottish queen of crime fiction has sold over 10 million books worldwide and soon, she will honour Icelandic fans by attending the third annual Iceland Noir festival taking place in Reykjavík 17-20 November. McDermid will be keynote speaker at the City Hall’s opening reception and then participate in no less than three panels. Accompanying her will be her long-term partner, professor Jo Sharp, as the trip will also be kind of a honeymoon for the couple.
“We had a civil partnership ceremony a couple of weeks ago so yes, it’s kind of a honeymoon but it’s also Jo’s birthday next week so I’m trying to persuade her it’s a bit of a birthday treat for her,” Val explains as she describes the small ceremony as lovely and intimate. “We had our friends and family there and, it’s a terrible cliché…but you really could feel the love.”
Val has been to Iceland once before, on holiday with her son a couple of years ago, and intends to revisit the Blue lagoon with Jo. “It’s not cold in the water; it was a really cold day when I was there with my son but the sun was shining and we stayed in the water a long time, it’s so nice.”
So she’s happy to be returning to Iceland? “Yes, I look forward to seeing a slightly different side to Reykjavík this time, not just as a tourist.” Despite her books having been translated to 30 languages, Iceland’s been “holding out” but Val suggests we could read some of them in Swedish, Norwegian or Danish. I chuckle and assure her that most Icelanders have likely read her books in English, not to mention watched Wire in the Blood which were extremely popular during their run. “Good, I’m glad about that,” says the 61-year-old author who made a cameo appearance in an episode in the first series. She continues writing about Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan despite the TV drama having run its course, with the latest book having come out only last year.
“I enjoyed it [Trapped] very much. I thought it was very gripping and I liked the central character (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) very much, he was very appealing, I thought. And the claustrophobic sense was interesting; they’re literally TRAPPED.”
But now, Val is not only coming to Iceland to discuss crime fiction but also participate in a panel about queer crime fiction specifically, even though her recent protagonists are not queer. “That’s how I started off actually; my first detective was a lesbian journalist. But, you know, I think pretty much all my books have gay/lesbian/transgender characters in them. I paint a landscape that includes queer but I don’t see my books as a vehicle for making any particular political point. The politics kind of fold into the books because those are my personal concerns and when you’re writing, your personal concerns invariably find their ways into the book. But I don’t think you win any hearts and minds by setting out with an agenda, I think you win hearts and minds by telling good stories that are populated with characters that we just care about.”
An avid fan of Nordic crime fiction since the late ‘70s, Val has enjoyed reading the books by Iceland’s very own Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson. “I like the sense of getting inside a society, getting inside a culture, getting inside a country that otherwise we
tend not to know very much about. You know, Iceland doesn’t headline very often here, apart from the banking crisis obviously. We don’t tend to get a lot of news coverage from Iceland so as with lots of places, we get the sense of the culture from reading about it in fiction. In crime fiction, there is that sense of getting the feel of what Iceland is actually like…which might be completely wrong, of course,” she says and laughs. “I know for example that there are very, very few murders in Iceland!”
What she likes about Nordic crime fiction is that the stories are what she calls, organic. “What happens in the books is because of it’s THAT place, because of THAT society, because of THAT community, because of THAT climate. What your writers are writing about is integral to the world they live in, the cities they live in, the times they live in, the communities they’re drawn from. And I always find that all very interesting and it kind of, to some degree, colours the attitude I have to my own work.”
With Icelandic crime fiction being somewhat the baby in the family of Nordic noir, does Val notice much difference in the Icelandic style? “Obviously there are some differences because it’s a different country and a different culture and you have different traditions; different story telling traditions apart from anything else. But I think there’s a lot that connects these as well.”
Val does have other interests than crime fiction; football has been her passion since childhood and she’s a lifelong fan of Raith Rovers, the football club of her old home town Kirkcaldy. In fact, she’s a board member of the club and sponsors Raith’s shirts and the McDermid stand at Raith Rover grounds, in honour of her father who was a scout for the club and used to take his daughter with him on scouting trips. And as so many Scots did this summer, Val took sides with the Nordic island during the Euros, where the unlikely Icelandic team debuted in the championship by finishing in 8th place, even kicking the English out of the tournament.
“I signed my emails “Val Jacobsdottir” on game day,” Val says chuckling and explains that since her father’s name, James, doesn’t exist in Icelandic, she went for the closest thing. “I enjoyed your passion and your style. And the crowd as well, with the Viking chant which came from Scotland originally, I belief. Apparently it started in Motherwell and I’m not quite sure how it moved from there to Iceland but we’re happy to share it with you!”
There are similarities between how the Icelandic football team sprung into the limelight and Icelandic crime drama which came into international demand only a few years ago. Val has an explanation. “Some of us have been banging on for years about the importance of translating foreign fiction and it took a long time to really get this moving. But now it’s become a thing where, I think, publishers have realised that actually it’s better to translate a really good foreign language novel than to publish another mediocre one written in English.
So there has been this movement towards publishing more translated fiction anyway. But then with the phenomenon of the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, suddenly all the publishers got very excited about Nordic crime in general. And you know, publishers are very lazy, if they see a bandwagon go by they jump on it and cling onto it with their fingertips.
And so I think the Icelandic crime writers just hit the ground at the right time, there was an appetite for their work outside their own backyard, as it were. And sometimes that’s just what it takes; publishing and success for writers is a matter of luck, a matter of being in the right place with the right book at the right time. I think that’s what happened; it started with Arnaldur and then he was followed by the others. And I think people were eager to sample what was coming out of Iceland as well as the other Nordic countries.”
“I enjoyed your passion and your style. And the crowd as well, with the Viking chant which came from Scotland originally, I belief. Apparently it started in Motherwell and I’m not quite sure how it moved from there to Iceland but we’re happy to share it with you!”
And Val, like so many other Brits, was glued to the TV on Saturday nights last February when BBC aired Trapped (Ófærð), the first Icelandic noir series to go international. “I enjoyed it very much. I thought it was very gripping and I liked the central character (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) very much, he was very appealing, I thought. And the claustrophobic sense was interesting; they’re literally TRAPPED. It also reminded me of the roots of classic crime fiction, you know, the locked room mystery, if you like, with a limited number of people who could be responsible. But it still had a wider canvas because of the ferry that had come from the outside world.”
But it’s the common denominator that unites people all over the world over a crime drama such as Trapped, Val says. “When you watch something like that, what you’re struck by – as much as the differences – is that people are the same wherever they are, wherever you set them down, people behave in the same way. And that’s why we connect to fiction and television series from other places because we recognize those common behaviours. So, when fiction works well it plugs into this sense we have of how people work.”
Main photo: Fraser Rice.