Quentin Bates pens a series of Icelandic murder mystery novels which feature the pleasingly pragmatic Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir. Firmly grounded in contemporary reality, Bates writes criminal investigations populated with contradictory characters who are neither clear-cut good-guys nor moustache-twirling villains. There’s an entertaining ambiguity to his three-dimensional creations and a well-honed wit to their dialogue – which stands in stark contrast to the author’s candid portrayal of what can be quite brutal criminal activities.
A British writer who has spent many years in Iceland, Bates weaves contemporary social and political issues into the fabric of his police procedurals. Iceland’s open-minded attitudes towards young, single parenthood form a long-running thread through the series, while the financial crisis inevitably informed the backdrop of the earlier novels. In his new book, THIN ICE, Bates neatly incorporates the subject of Iceland’s declining fishing industry, providing plausible motivation for one of his major characters to stray off the straight and narrow.
There’s obviously a lot more going on in the Officer Gunna books than first meets the eye – so we decided it was time to call Quentin Bates to the witness stand…
Is the story of THIN ICE inspired by true events, or entirely of your own creation?
As far as I know, it’s something I dreamed up by myself. There’s nothing new about the spooky empty hotel location, but I wanted to give it a different twist. The crime came first, one criminal robbing another, and that’s based very loosely on some real events, then came the location and then the characters.
A couple of the characters in THIN ICE are intriguingly ambiguous, and tread either side of the good / bad line. How much fun was that to develop?
That was fascinating! Essentially it’s a process of piling the pressure onto characters who aren’t exactly stable to begin, and seeing what happens as the sparks start to fly. Magni and Össur are a powder keg waiting to go off, and adding Tinna Lind and Erna to the mix is like splashing petrol on a fire.
You also give us several unambiguously unpleasant villains, and do seem to get a kick out of writing delightfully bad bad guys – like Baddo, in CHILLED TO THE BONE, and the international man-of-mystery assassin back in FROZEN OUT. Sometimes, they seem to steal the scene. Intentional? Or do they just run away with the plot?
I have to admit to a weakness for a good villain. They are enormously enjoyable to write – often more so than the real central characters. I always seem to start out with good intentions to have everything centred around the investigators, but somehow the bad guys (and gals) always seem to run away with the plot. Villains are the ones who seem to really spark the imagination.
The killer in Frozen Out was originally a Swede, but I was working for a Norwegian company at the time and didn’t get on with the boss at all. So I made the bad guy Norwegian instead.
Officer Gunna herself seems to be firmly on the side of the angels. Are you ever tempted to explore Gunnhildur’s dark side? Does she even have a dark side? She kinda comes over like a domestic angel, balancing an increasingly complicated and rapidly extending family life with these complicated investigations. Have you deliberately kept her away from developing those ‘brooding / depressed / addicted / conflicts with authority’ characteristics so beloved of most crime writers?
Gunnhildur definitely has a dark side, but it’s well below the surface. One day it may well appear and when it does, it’ll be dramatic as she has one of those slow-burn tempers that goes off with a bang when it finally happens. I didn’t mean her to be a domestic angel. She doesn’t cook when Steini does a better job in the kitchen and she’ll do anything to avoid re-acquainting herself with the vacuum cleaner.
Characters with conflicts and baggage tend to be interesting ones, but at the same time I didn’t want her to become the archetypal troubled cop with a drink problem and an addiction to junk food. There are plenty of male characters in fiction along those lines and I didn’t want her to be a bloke with boobs. So the dark side is hinted at, and Gunnhildur may be troubled but she’s also a down-to-earth and practical character of the kind who knows that she has to function, especially with the confused family life around her.
There is another character waiting in the wings who may well trigger something of the dark side – and that’s Gunnhildur’s mum. She’s there in a story that had to be shelved for a variety of reasons, but sooner or later I’ll dust that one off.
Which aspect of crime writing do you prefer; the mystery / investigation, or the social commentary and cultural exploration?
The simple answer is both. The mystery/investigation side of it is the challenge, getting to grips with the technical aspects of making a story actually work without to many holes in the plot. That does have me tearing my hair out on occasions, but it keeps the mind working. The social commentary is always interesting, as Iceland has been such a turbulent place over the last decade or so, with massive changes taking place, so it’s not something that could be ignored.
I enjoy the cultural exploration, particularly portraying a side of Iceland that visitors rarely see, if they ever see any of it. It’s a delightful, safe, cosy place on the surface but there are plenty of sinister undercurrents if you dig deep enough.
The cultural stuff is probably what I like in reading fiction. I’m that publisher’s nightmare, the disloyal reader who doesn’t read a series from beginning to end but dips in here and there, and I’m also the reader who picks out weird foreign names from bookshop shelves rather than the familiar ones. I’ll generally go for the unfamiliar but intriguing over the familiar safe pair of hands.
Which character from THIN ICE would you like to spend an evening with down the pub, and why?
If you want a party in a disreputable bar that goes on until the cleaners turn up in the morning, then that would be Magni. But the one I’d like to meet would be Ívar Laxdal. There’s a man with some secrets and tales to tell. Some of them might even be true.
As an author and translator who’s been working in this genre for many years, how do you feel about the mainstream popularity of Nordic noir and Scandi crime? (Forgive the generalisation; MMM readers know that Iceland is an entirely separate geographical area but sometimes shorthand wins out). Obviously, you now have access to a broader audience with your own books, but does popular culture drive the genre away from its roots?
Scandi is fine. Geographically Iceland isn’t part of Scandinavia, but in cultural terms it definitely is, although it also tends to lean more to America than Europe in many ways than the other Nordic nations do. But that’s another story…
I’m very happy to see Nordic crime becoming increasingly popular in English – and in that way the UK and US lag far behind Germany and France where this stuff has been on the shelves for years. I’m not sure that Nordic is anywhere near being mainstream, or if it ever will be, so I don’t think it’s in danger of being separated from its roots. There are a couple of Nordic authors who sell in substantial amounts, but translated fiction in English and Nordic TV such as the Killing, the Bridge or Trapped remain pretty niche.
Although we try to avoid pigeon-holing any author, we’d say your ‘Icelandic Murder Mysteries’ are more ‘thoughtful police procedurals’ than ‘hard-hitting noir’. Yet publishers do tend to promote books using one-size-fits-nothing-particularly-well cover images and blurb, which can give readers somewhat skewed perceptions. How do you personally describe your books? Which other authors would you say they share shelf-space with?
I try not to describe my books… I like the ‘thoughtful’ description, as that’s more or less what I’m aiming at. I’d like to produce intelligent crime fiction that contains a few challenges and doesn’t necessarily tie up the loose ends in the usual ways. Sometimes bad guys do get away with it, and sometimes justice can be administered through unconventional routes.
The previous book, Summerchill, was set at the height of a hot summer. Yet the publisher decreed that the cover should still have snow on it. I’d have liked to complain bitterly, but recognised that sometimes you just have to pick your battles and this wasn’t one that I was going to win.
I’d really like my stuff to be on a shelf somewhere near Dominique Manotti, Kati Heikkapelto, Gunnar Staalesen and AK Benedict, sharp, intelligent fiction that delivers plenty of the unexpected and is prepared to break the rules.
Can you recommend a top-class Icelandic, Nordic or Scandi book, film or TV series which hasn’t yet hit the big-time, for our audience to seek out and enjoy?
The one I’d really like to recommend is Lilja Sigurðardóttir. But I can’t, as she hasn’t been translated yet. I’m hoping that her books will be snapped up by a UK publisher right away, if not sooner. The first book of her new trilogy is excellent and definitely deserves a wider readership. Look out for Lilja soon, I hope.
Leaving the Scandi aspects aside for a moment, are there any other authors, genres or writing styles which have particularly influenced you?
I’m not sure. There are plenty of writers I admire hugely, but I’m not sure about influences. I’m too close to this stuff to tell, but I guess everything you read becomes an influence. I grew up reading Maugham, Kipling and Hardy, as well as Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and CS Forester, and was also pinching Sjöwall and Wahlöö and Simenon from my mum’s bookshelves when I was about twelve.
What do you read for fun – in any genre or media?
I admire John Le Carré’s books enormously, even the ones that are judged to be less good. Then there’s Len Deighton, and every few years I’ll revisit Hornblower. Normally I don’t go in for sea stories, although I was a seaman myself for some years. But Hornblower is in a class of his own. I ought to be reading a couple of Icelandic book a month, as a translator has to stay sharp and language skills can rust if they’re not used, but unfortunately the to-be-read pile is spiralling far out of control.
I’ll still dip into all of the above given an opportunity, especially Simenon, and the new translations are very good.
And finally, which Wallander actor does it for you?
Krister Henriksson was good, but Rolf Lassgård is closer to Wallander as I imagined him from the books. As for Kenneth Branagh, let’s not even go there…
THIN ICE by Quentin Bates is available as an ebook or paperback
Check out his Facebook page
And read QB’s blog to find out where the Gráskeggur nickname comes from
Interview by Rowena Hoseason