It can safely be claimed that the career of mystery-writer Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson is rather peculiar and one could even learn a lesson from it about the attitudes of Icelanders towards popular culture, and the history of the detective-novel in the past few years.
Viktor’s career as a writer can be separated into two parts, for even though he is today rather well known for his novel Engin spor (No Trace) from 1998 and Flatejyargátan (The Flatey Mystery) from 2002, there are few who know that just over two decades ago he published two novels, that also can be defined within the genre of popular writing. These are Dauðasök (Capital Punishment) from 1978 and Heitur snjór (Hot Snow) from 1982. As I have already discussed in the article on crime-fiction writer Arnaldur Indriðason, these were the years where a few authors attempted to introduce Icelandic crime-fiction; Gunnar Gunnarsson and Ólafur Haukur Símonarson published a handful of detective novels during this period.
Even though Viktor’s two recent novels are much in the style of traditional detective stories, similar to Gunnar’s stories and later Arnarldur’s, his first two books were more akin to thrillers, despite the fact that both depict police detectives who work on the cases that are the subject of the narratives. In Dauðasök the role of the detective is minimal and it is not until at the end of the story the reader finds out that he was the one who outlined the chain of events from the beginning. These events are the contemporary terrorist acts, which at the time mainly focused on highjacking airplanes. Germans were particularly advanced in terrorism and the novel partly takes place in Germany. A German policeman is on a task force to put an end to terrorism and in his investigation he is tracking a young woman who flies to Iceland. Another storyline involves a rumour about an attack on the German embassy in Reykjavík and an Icelandic newly married couple on their way to a honeymoon. When the German policeman arrives in Iceland, he has no papers confirming his identity and is promptly arrested. He manages to escape and attacks the terrorists but as his assault is clumsy and based on a complete misunderstanding about how matters stand he only screws things up and is himself arrested with a busfull of passengers on their way to the airport. The last part of the book describes the hostage situation and its consequences.
The story is very short and is thus really more a novella than a novel. Even though it bears clear marks of being a beginners work, its style is effortless and the narrative interesting, particularly for the rather well worked combination of an international terrorist threat and Iceland’s position at the time. It is also worth while to recall that terrorism is not something new, even though methods have changed and the attitude towards them also, and that now different nations present a much more united front against it.
A contemporary work just like Dauðasök, Heitur snjór similarly portrays Icelandic innocence in the face of the big wide world. The story is about drugs, as the title indicates. The novel begins in the desert of North-Africa describing how opium is smuggled from the Middle East to Turkey and from there to the United States and Europe. Background research is skilfully done, as was also apparent in Dauðasök, and Viktor creates a believable atmosphere around the chain of events. In the next chapter we find ourselves in New York, where the police finally manages to catch a dealer, who causes the drug-ring to break. This lands the Icelandic smuggler and drugowner Arnþór in trouble and he flees back to Iceland with a few kilograms of pure heroine. After some deliberation he decides to try and sell the stuff in Iceland and the story then describes the consequences of this. Together with the narrative of Arnþór, now-turned-playboy, we hear the story of a rather ordinary group of teenagers who become the victims of drug addiction, starting out just as is described today: a free sample is offered to them.
Even though the novel is in many ways interesting and indicative of things to come, the story is not as well executed as Dauðasök, particularly as pertains to the world of the teenagers that is unnecessarily flat, and their behaviour is not always entirely believable – the measure of believability being the traditional issue for valuing such narratives!
Just as in Dauðasök the novel is short and in the second part the author introduces a rather good team of police people, who are a bit like the team that was later to appear in Engin spor. Apart from this, Viktor’s early stories are more similar to Birgitta Halldórsdóttir novels, than the crime-fiction of recent popularity, such as those of Arnaldur Indriðason, Árni Þórarinsson and Stella Blómkvist, and indeed Viktor’s own recent novels. Like Birgitta, Viktor gives his stories a certain glamour and drama by partly setting them abroad and thus placing them within the context of pressing international issues, such as terrorism and drugs. The style is also similar, the stories are written in the traditional writerly-style of the Icelandic popular novel. It may be added that Birgitta published her first book in 1983 and thus follows directly upon aforementioned ripples of pulp in the literary landscape. It comes as no surprise that Viktor’s novels did not become much noted when Birgitta is to date a more or less unknown author. These dramatic thrillers are considered to belong to women’s fiction – although it is interesting to note that Árni Þórarinsson’s newest mystery-novel, Í upphafi var morðið (In the beginning was Murder), co written with Páll Kristinn Pálsson (2002), is distinctly in the style of Birgitta’s brand of crime-fiction, and thus it might appear that this variety is gaining acceptance.
Twenty years later...
... but not quite, in 1986 a short story by Viktor Arnar appeared in a collection published after a short story competition run by the Reykjavík Art Festival. The story is called “Slossmæjer” and is a kind of a thriller. A woman calls for a locksmith to open the door to her grandfather’s house, she has not heard from the old man in over a week, and he answers neither phone nor doorbell. Apart from this Viktor kept quiet for sixteen years, until Engin spor [No Trace] became the pleasantly surprising discovery of 1998.
Even though the publication story of Engin spor is only partly official I would like to discuss it briefly. Viktor Arnar had sent his manuscript to a few publishers and gotten a few comments, many of whom he used well, but nobody was convinced enough to publish, so he finally published the novel himself. This is in 1998, the preceding year Arnaldur Indriðason had published his first detective story, Synir duftsins [Sons of Earth]. The same year Stella Blómkvist’s [an unknown author, using a pseudonym] first novel appeared in paperback, and then of course the annual work of Birgitta Halldórsdóttir. Even though Arnaldur’s and Stella’s books had gotten some audience, publishers were reluctant to trust in the succession of the form. Arnaldur got his second novel, Dauðarósir (Silent Kill), published, but Engin spor got no response from publishers – until the self-published edition became a hit among readers, with justice, as it was without doubt the year’s best mystery novel. (And in fact the best novel of two years, as it was not until Mýrin (Jar City) by Arnaldur was published in 2000 that a crime novel equal to Engin spor appeared.) A year later, it was re-issued in paperback by publishing house Mál og menning, one of the publishers who had originally rejected the novel. Without wishing to criticise the publisher, this story shows how recently Icelandic crime fiction was considered non-stable, and how little faith publishers had in the success of Icelandic crime writers.
In Engin spor Viktor Arnar takes a completely new approach to the form and chooses to place his crime in the not so distant past, in the early seventies. Flateyjargátan also takes place in the past, or in the early sixties, and it must be said that this rather measured and rural facade of the past is much better suited to Viktor Arnar than the contemporary glamour of the earlier works.
In the beginning of Engin spor a middle aged man is found dead on the living room floor in a large house in posh Birkihlíð in Reykjavík. He had died by a gunshot, and the police starts investigating the case. Soon it aspires that the sudden death of Jacob Kieler jr. is very similar to, even almost exactly like, the circumstances of his father’s death, but he had also been found dead by a gunshot in the same place in the same house, some thirty years earlier. That death was also investigated by the police but remains unsolved, as the killer is never found. These two cases seem related and the police investigation involves, among other things, a reading of the father’s diaries. He had been an engineer like his son, and as a great believer in trains he dreamt of building a railway through the city of Reykjavík.
In this sideline created by the diaries, which describes on the one hand the situation in Europe before the second world war and wartime in Iceland, Viktor Arnar puts to good use the potential of the crime novel to tell more than just a story of a crime. The setting of Engin spor is partly the late industrial revolution of Iceland, where the diaries play an important part and give the novel a historical dimension, as well a driving the narrative on and creating the key to the solution. In this way the technological development in Iceland is woven into the detective story, and finally it is engineering that provides the key to the solution. At the same time Viktor’s story is a well spun crime story, as evident from the creation of athmosphere and characters. The police team is well thought out and convincing, particularly the main character Jóhann, who is educated in Forensic Science, a profession that is a recent addition at this time for Icelandic Police.
Viktor’s version of a solution to the mystery must not be forgotten. It is far from traditional, even though he has in every other respect structured a perfectly traditional setting and police investigation. I will say no more in order not to ruin the pleasure for those who have not read the book [which is sadly only available in Icelandic].
In 2000 the Association of Icelandic Publishers decided that a crime novel, written in a serial form, would be the present to customers in bookstores during the annual “Week of the Book”. (This idea to present readers with a free book when they shop has been a custom for some years. The Week of the Book is held in April, to celebrate the International Day of the Book on April 23). Members of the newly formed society, Crime Writers of Iceland, were asked to the take on the job. Appropriately Viktor Arnar, the association’s secretary, began the story Leyndardómar Reykjavíkur, writing the first chapter describing how a body is found, thus starting the chain of events. The story is written in the hard-boiled style and Viktor shows a fair mastery of the form.
Given that Viktor chooses to unravel the knotted threads of his stories in a rather particular manner, it does not come as a surprise that he chooses to refer to mystery stories (‘gátusögur’), which is very suitable for his own novels, as evident from the title of the author’s fourth novel, Flateyjargátan [The Flatey Mistery]. It is subtitled ‘a crime story’ though.
On one of a myriad of uninhabited islands in the fjord Breiðafjörður a dead man is found. Something is odd about the way his death came about, for it is highly strange that the man would be stranded there. No shipwrecks have happened, no boat is to be found, and no man is missing from the area. A newly graduated notary whose aim in life is to become an office bloke gets sent to the nearby island Flatey to examine the matter and write it up in a report, but he is very much against this messing around with bodies and questions.
Still, he has to do his duty accompanied by the local law of the island, and quickly discovers the inhabitants' fascination with The Book from Flatey, one of the largest of Icelandic medieval manuscripts, a kind of reader or a collection, containing Sagas of the Kings of Norway; Tales of Icelanders, The Saga of the Greenlanders and other writings. The mystery of Flatey itself is a puzzle that has been amalgamated around the book, and the solution to it and the way to that solution becomes involved in the case, as the dead man turns out to be a Danish professor who visited Flatey to get acquainted with the surrounding area of this great book and to attempt to solve the puzzle. He was one of the Danish scholars who tried their best to prevent that the medieval manuscripts were handed over from Denmark to Icelanders for care and conserve. The story takes place in 1960 when discussions about this matter were heated, and in this way Viktor blends the manuscripts themselves and their ‘case’ into the story.
Just like in Engin spor the story is told in two interlacing parts, where the contemporary setting and chapters from The Book from Flatey alternate, but these chapters provide the key to the mystery. They are presented in the way that the reader knows that two people are having a go at the puzzle, but the reader does not know until at the end who they are. At times the events of the quotes from The Book from Flatey synchronise with events that take place in the main narrative.
The setting is extremely well executed, as it was in Engin spor, and Viktor depicts the tiny community of Flatey so vividly that the reader feels that he is literally present. Characters, houses and the everyday life of the village, all is infused with a pleasant and effortless feeling of a past, without ever resorting to the nostalgia that so often marks historical fiction, or the looking back to past times.
Needless to say, all kinds of mysterious events occur, another man is found dead, at this time in the graveyard, he has been mutilated in a particular manner, known from the sagas; a so called bloodeagle has been cut onto his back, and this form of mutilation is described in The Book from Flatey. In this way it is indicated that the murders are clever, if a bit sick copies of some of the deaths from the sagas. It also comes to light that on the island there are people who are connected to the professor, and as the story unfolds all kinds of people linked to the case turn out to be connected in unexpected ways. Clearly everything is as it should be in a good detective story. The past of the people involved becomes mixed up in the case, which is finally solved as it well should be.
It is evident that in the twenty years that pass between the first two novels of Viktor Arnar and the next two (there are exactly twenty years between the first and the third, 1978/1998 and between the second and the fourth, 1982/2002) his approach to form and style have altered considerably. Still, we must hope that he will not make us wait another twenty years before he publishes the next two.
© Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir, 2003.Back