I’m waiting at a cafe in Reykjavik. The sun’s been up for about the past month, and I’m feeling a bit fuzzy after following through on a horrible idea the previous night: do some research on a story I’m supposed to be writing. You know—get some local color and find out if Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is as popular in Iceland as Morrow, her stateside publisher, makes her out to be. Turns out she is: five of five people I talk to have read her; one in five claims to know her. I also learn that bar owners can close their establishments whenever they want.
Anyway, so it’s the next day, and I show up at the cafe early. A group of young mothers and their children are seated nearby doing the coffee klatch thing until the monitor on the table broadcasts the metallic whine of a crying baby. One of the women gets up, walks outside and tends to her baby, who is nestled in blankets in a stroller on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the same thing playing out in New York, but Iceland is a very, very, very safe place where you can leave a baby unattended in a stroller on the sidewalk while you have coffee.
Yrsa shows up, a petite woman with braces on her teeth, in the vanguard of Icelandic crime fiction, whose second novel to feature attorney/murder magnet Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, My Soul to Take, is just out now in the States. I join her and her husband, Óli, who is built like a bouncer, and we talk about Iceland (beautiful), the economy (awful) and Yrsa’s publishing history (successful). They’re disarmingly nice, the picture of sturdy Icelandic breeding. (Later, I’m surprised when Óli says they’re both in their mid-40s. “It’s the skinny cigarettes,” he jokes of the impossibly thin cigarettes they smoke. “There’s not as much bad stuff in them.”) The original plan for today was to take a short flight to the Westmann Islands and spend the afternoon on Heimaey, where a 1973 volcano eruption destroyed half the main town. That event plays prominently in the third Thora novel, Ashes to Dust (it’s currently being translated for U.K. publication), but the winds are too intense, so the flight is scrapped. The new plan is lunch and a tour of a geothermal power plant. You see, in addition to international bestselling author, mother of two, grandmother of one and owner of two pugs, Yrsa’s a civil engineer. With the economy in a death spiral, the engineering work has slowed, but, she says, her books are doing better than ever: her most recent Thora novel debuted in December as the #2 hardcover bestseller in Iceland (its initial print run, 10,000, was huge by Icelandic standards), and she’s in the middle of writing the next, on track to deliver this fall and maintain her average of a novel per year. She doesn’t do much press in Iceland—one interview per year, so people “won’t get tired of me”—but is frequently on the road to promote her books abroad. There is much terrain to cover; she’s been translated into nearly 30 languages.
She began her writing career with twisted children’s books, two of which won Icelandic book prizes. After five books, she switched publishers and kicked off the Thora series. “I was so tired of being funny and had a head full of bad things that I needed to get rid of,” she says. “Things you can’t put in a children’s book.” The idea, partially, was to shake up the boys’ club of Scandinavian crime fiction with a contemporary heroine robust enough to sustain interest over a number of books. Enter Thora, a single mother of two who works at a small Reykjavik law firm and has a penchant for getting sucked into murder cases. In Last Rituals, Thora’s first outing, she’s hired by a wealthy German family to investigate the occult murder of their son, whose mutilated body had bizarre symbols carved into it. Morrow billed it as “an Icelandic novel of secret symbols, medieval witchcraft and modern murder.” It’s a fine example of Scandinavian crime fiction—dark, moody, atmospheric—with a healthy dose of creepiness. Researching the book, Yrsa ordered witchcraft books from Amazon.com. Now, she gets e-mails from them promoting books on torture equipment. “I’m in their psycho database,” she says.
The second Thora novel, My Soul to Take, is set on the Snaefellsness peninsula (home to the Snaefellsjokull glacier, which doubled as the gateway into inner space in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) and follows Thora as she hunts ghosts and murder suspects on a farm being renovated into a high-end spa and hotel. Her domestic life is no less complicated: her ex-husband is still a jerk; she’s romantically involved with a character from the first book; and her teenage son is about to become a father. Thora rolls with it all and still manages to crack the case.
A grand tradition among crime writers is to portray their home city as the gnarliest place on the planet. Reykjavik, however, is the epitome of quaint, and Iceland is gorgeous. Everywhere you look is a postcard view; the standard of living is high (or, rather, was, until recently); Icelanders are statistically one of the happiest people on the planet (perhaps less so now); everyone is on a first-name basis with everyone else. The murder rate is comically low: one case for every 200,000 people.
“Icelandic crime is so lame,” Yrsa says. “You have to come up with a reasonable reason for someone to commit murder, and it has to be interesting and different for each book. That’s a challenge.”
By now, Óli is driving us to the power plant. To get there, you take the highway out of Reykjavik toward Keflavik. The road was carved out of an immense lava field, and the power plant sits amid a landscape so forbidding and desolate that NASA sent astronauts here to train for the moon landing. Yrsa knows the plant’s safety director—they’ve been working together for the past few years on another geothermal plant in the north—and he walks us through the plant, explaining what each giant machine does. Then we hop in the four-wheel drive and head out on a primitive road to a bore hole that feeds the plant. En route, Yrsa gestures out the window at the lava field. She says, “There’s supposed to be a body dumped out there somewhere.”