Chasing the elusive Lights, and Iceland Noir

4 December 2013

‘A crime festival in Reykjavík in November 2014? Good idea.’

‘Er, no… this year,’ we replied to a few disbelieving stares.

It’s an Icelandic thing. In Iceland things tend to happen fast or not at all. Sometimes it doesn’t work, often it comes off beautifully.

Earlier this year, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and I met over a curry and a beer, and it turned out we had had similar thoughts about Iceland’s lack of any kind of crime fiction festival. Iceland has its own literary festival, but that’s a highbrow affair and it seemed to us that crime had been overlooked. Was it time to take the bull by the horns? By the time we met again a few weeks later at CrimeFest, the decision was taken and we started telling people what we had in mind.

This time everything clicked and a lot of people immediately promised their support – notably the lovely Ann Cleeves, who said yes on the spot when we asked her if she’d come. Ragnar found a venue for us at the Nordic House in Reykjavík, and after that there was no turning back once people started booking themselves flights and hotel rooms.

On a cold, bright Saturday, we all turned up at the Nordic House not knowing quite what to expect from the half dozen panels that we had set up and the line-up of speakers we had enticed to take part.

 A major coup was getting Iceland’s king of crime fiction, Arnaldur Indriðason, to take part, and he was great value. Notoriously private, he doesn’t blog, tweet, have his own website or do Facebook. He rarely appears in public and picks his interviews carefully, but he showed up and took part in a panel on the perils and pitfalls of crime fiction in translation, along with his fellow Icelandic author Óttar Norðfjörð and translators Anna Yates and Tina Flecken, all managed by Bob Cornwell. Arnaldur was certainly the star of the show and he delivered; he was interesting and funny, commenting with a laugh that if there’s a shred of humour in any of his books, then it’s purely unintentional.

The day had panels with a whole cross-section of Icelandic and foreign authors, from the new and untranslated to well-known veterans, as well as one-to-one interviews with Ann Cleeves and John Curran. Everything was capped with Jake Kerridge manfully keeping control of a panel made up of Maxim Jakubowski, Zoë Sharp, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Susan Moody and Ævar Örn Jósepsson talking about Does Crime Pay? in a discussion that somehow took in pet hates in crime fiction, feminism and (somehow) wrestling in mud.

What had been originally supposed to be a one-day event turned into a bit more than that as enthusiastic people added other events. The Icelandic Crime Syndicate timed its annual reading evening at a Reykjavík bar to coincide with Iceland Noir and invited a few of the foreign authors to read in English. The Reykjavík City Library organised a crime walk through the city, hosted by Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir. We added a reading and question evening of our own at the Nordic House on the Sunday evening, and there were opportunities to search for the Northern Lights. The guide had a great time with the assembled crime writers in the Arctic wilderness, but the lights themselves remained obstinately elusive.

Was it stressful and intense? Yes. Will we do it again? Absolutely. We decided right away that we wanted to maintain the small, friendly, informal atmosphere of this first festival, so Iceland Noir 2014 will be in the same venue. It won’t be any bigger, limited by the Nordic House’s capacity, but next year it’ll be longer. To make travel arrangements easier for those travelling to Iceland, next year it’ll be two full days instead of one day and some extra events around it.

There were a few mistakes along the way – and next year there will be a booking fee, largely because a small number of people registered to take part and then didn’t show up, which was galling as there was a waiting list. A modest booking fee will hopefully deter the tyre kickers, and will also go some way towards the cost of printing the name badges and the programme.

There are plenty of people who made it all happen; thanks are due to the Nordic House, the City Library, Icelandair, the ladies of the All-Iceland travel agency who provided so much practical help and encouragement, Anna Sólrún for rigorous timekeeping, the moderators who were shanghaied into keeping order, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson for producing the badges, the British Embassy in Reykjavík and the Icelandic Embassy in London, Athygli for producing the programme, the Icelandic Crime Syndicate for their support, but mostly to the good people who came to Iceland and helped us all have such a great time.

See you next year?

Photos by Markús Már Efraím

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