The Detective Novel in Iceland: Beck Lecture

Dr. Tulinius

The place was packed. I quit counting at sixty.

And it wasn’t just the numbers but who was there. This is Victoria, remember, not Winnipeg, and there were the Consul General, Hjalmar Hannesson and his wife, Anna. With them were Bill and Heather Ireland. Heather is the Honorary Consul in Vancouver.

Dr. John Tucker, Medievalist, has retired. He has directed the Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures from the very beginning. Dr. Helga Thorson, Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies is the new director. She introduced herself and the speaker Dr. Torfi Tulinius.

Dr. Tulinius wasn’t intimidated by a room full of Arnaldur Indriðason groupies. He launched right into his eagerly awaited talk, “The Detective Novel in Icelandic: From Jóhann M. Bjarnason to Arnaldur Indriðason“.

Torfi has a Phd from the Sorbonne, is Professor of Medieval Icelandic Studies in the School of Humanities at the U. Of Iceland. He is interested in a broad subject matter: Medieval Icelandic Literature, Medieval history, narrative theory, and psychoanalysis. He used something from all those fields to tell us about Indriðason´s writing and Indriðason himself. However, he first put Indriðason´s novels in context.

The detective novel in Icelandic could first be attributed to Jóhann M. Bjarnason in 1910. JMB, an Icelandic Canadian writer, wrote a short story that had a protagonist who uses Conan Doyle´s techniques to solve a mystery.
Not much happens from then until after the war when Valur Vestan writes some mystery fiction However, it really isn´t until the 1970s that detective fiction, murder mysteries start to appear by people like Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Gunnar Gunnanson, Brigitta Halldórsdóttir, and Leo Löwe.
In 2001 crime fiction was still not taken seriously because Icelandic writers felt that there was so little crime in Iceland that there was nothing to write about.

It wasn´t until the late 90s mystery writing started to catch the attention of both Icelandic writers and public.

Because of the importance of literature in Iceland, crime fiction created a reaction. It was a stranger in the family where poetry and serious literary work were admired and understood. Literature in Iceland is an important part of the national identity. People didn´t know quite how to react. The Sagas and Eddas had preserved the language and kept it distinct from other languages. As well, the Eddas and Sagas had played an important part in Iceland´s gaining independence from Denmark.

Modern prose writers such as Gunnar Gunnarsson and Halldor Laxness were considered serious writers. They fitted into the literary image held by Icelanders. Sixty years ago in 1955 Laxness received the Nobel prize and with it created recognition world wide of Icelandic literature.

Crime fiction intruded into the serious literariness of the Icelanders but, because of its success abroad, it had a driving force that could not be ignored. Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. That was, at least in part, because of the wide readership and praise for crime fiction written by Icelandic writers.

Torfi gave a slide show as he lectured. It made following the historic story easier to follow. He entitled one section “Is crime fiction a stranger to the family?”

He answered this question by demonstrating that there are elements of mystery solving in the sagas. One of those was the mysterious murder of Vésteinn and then Gisli´s murder of his bother-in-law, Porgrímur. In another saga episode the dead are brought back to reveal that a crime has been committed. Even in societies that don’t have police forces crimes need to be discovered and dealt with.

At this point, Torfi turned to telling us something about Indriðason´s background. Like his father, he was a journalist. Arnaldur reviewed Scandinavian crime fiction. He developed a wide knowledge of Icelandic modern history. Using that knowledge, he recreates a fictional world that incorporates modern elements that people know about. In The Draining Lake, he has as an important element of Russian spy equipment. It is a little bit of history that people only remember when prodded.

While he creates the Iceland that was rushed pell-mell out of history into the present by WWII, he is influenced by the sagas with their themes of revenge, honour, and family loyalty. His novels often revolve around families and their relationship.

One particularly interesting fact was that the name of his main character, Erlendur, means foreigner or stranger. It immediately made sense for Erlendur, the depressed, moody detective, obsessed with the missing and the past, is from the country, from old Iceland. He lives in Reykjavik, in new Iceland. He is uncomfortable there. As a policeman he sees the stresses and strains, the ruptures and disruptions of family life, the cost of urbanization.

Torfi finished by telling us that Indriðason writes a book a year. He is looking forward to the new one being released, as usual, on November 1. You could tell from the reaction of the audience that there will be a lot of people at the bookstores in Victoria when this latest novel becomes available. I´ll be one of them.

If you get a chance to hear Dr. Torfi Tulinius talk about the detective novel be sure to attend. He´s a good lecturer and will leave you satisfied but wanting to know more.

Brown: Song of the Vikings

I love books. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books.

My grandmother taught me to read by sitting beside me on the living room couch and reading the newspaper comics to me and getting me to recognize words and sound them out. Comics led to picture books and picture books led to novels and collections of short stories.

I love to read. Reading makes who worlds come alive. Reading takes me places I will never go physically.

Books are filled with details that inform and fascinate.

I’ve been enjoying my new book, Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown. It’s all about Snorri Sturlusson, one of the great figures of Icelandic history and literature. However, the author knows that she’s got to make the times she is writing about come alive. The way a writer does that is with concrete, specific detail. That details allows us to share the time and place. It does more than that, however. It also tells us that the writer knows what she is talking about, that her narrative voice can be believed. Added to that is that these concrete details inform, make this reader feel that he now knows something he didn’t know before.

I love to learn. To stop learning is to die. A good book leaves the reader knowing more than before he read it.

Brown’s Song of the Vikings is filled with concrete detail, with information, but there on page 31 there was a paragraph that to me was worth the entire price of the book.  I expect there will be many more of these paragraphs. I will, I think, be repaid many times as I read.

Here is the paragraph:

“Quill pens were cut from swan, goose, or raven feathers (also easily come by in Iceland); left-wing feathers were best for right-handed writers because they bent away from the eye. Ink was made by boiling whole bearberry plants with a clay commonly used to dye wool black. A few shavings of green willow twigs were added to the pot, and the mixture was simmered until it turned sticky. “Let a drop fall onto your fingernail,” says one recipe. “If it remains there like a little ball, then the ink is ready.” A little bit of gum from the first milk of a young ewe or heifer was added to the ink to make it shiny. The result was ink that was black, glossy, and impermeable to water—important to people who often traveled by ship.”

All those sagas, hand printed on vellum. Deposited in Reykjavik. National treasures. Ink on vellum.  And did you ever wonder where that ink came from in the land of fire and ice, the land of earthquakes and volcanoes, the land of long, dark winters, the land of huts made of turf and rock? Without ink, ink that would last through the centuries, there could be no written sagas. Snorri could not have written, could not have recorded the stories we still read today.

Simple questions. Obvious questions. But often unasked and so unanswered. Here is a saga. How could the pages be created? From where came the ink? From where came the pens to dip in the ink? Without knowing these things, how is one to appreciate what one sees when looking at a saga in a glass case, not created by God, not created by magic, but  by our ancestors on some isolated farm, read and re-read, surviving the vagaries of the weather, the conditions in the turf houses, the smoke, the dampness, the handling.

Quill pens. From swan, goose or raven. Knowing that being right-handed, we needed feathers from the left wing. Going shopping for pens meant hunting those swans, geese and ravens. You might stumble across a dead bird and be blessed with the wings for your winter’s printing. More likely, you had to hunt the birds or have the wealthy farm owner have his hired help hunt them for you. A winter’s supply of quill pens.

And having ink meant you had to know the bearberry plan. Know the right clay and where to collect it. Knew where to collect the green willow. Know when you could get the first milk from a young ewe. No going to an office supply store where all you need is a credit card.

Let us read this book together. You can post your discovered treasures, make your comments, on my blog site.