Excerpt from Nicholas Wroe's Guardian interview with Arnaldur Indridason, the dean of Icelandic crime fiction and winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award.
A child's birthday party in a new housing development on the outskirts of Reykjavik. As the sugar-filled excitement builds to an unbearable cacophony, an adult guest sits quietly watching a toddler gnawing on a toy.
So opens Arnaldur Indridason's award-winning 2005 novel Silence of the Grave (translated by Bernard Scudder). The smiling little girl eventually comes nearer and the adult looks more intently at her scruffy toy. It is revealed as a piece of bone, a 10cm-long strip of human rib, "off-white in colour and worn smooth where it had broken."
Enter Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, Arnaldur Indridason's "gloomy Scandinavian" 50-something detective (broken marriage, heroin-addict daughter, lonely evenings reading Icelandic sagas), whose melancholy doggedness will cast light on deeply buried family history, wartime atrocities and booming economic change.
"I suppose that scene is pretty disgusting," laughs Indridason, sipping coffee in a café overlooking the city of Reykjavik and the dramatic snow-covered heights of Mount Esja behind it. "But I wrote about films for 20 years and Alfred Hitchcock was my favourite director. So in a way it is a tribute to him. I think it is also a little bit funny and I hope it catches some of his combination of humour and mayhem."
Silence of the Grave is the fourth of seven novels featuring Erlendur - Icelanders always address each other by first name - although only the second to be translated into English. A third, Voices (sixth in the series, it opens with the discovery of a murdered Father Christmas; still in red suit and white beard but with a bloody stab wound to the heart, trousers round his ankles and a condom hanging from his penis) will be published by Harvill in the UK next month.
All are set in Iceland and all deal with social and political issues that, while not exclusive to Iceland, are shaped by a specific local resonance: a national DNA data base for this genetically homogenous population, domestic violence, the legacy of war and colonisation, migration from the country to the city.
Indridason's incorporation of aspects of the Icelandic literary tradition of saga, such as the sometimes bloodthirsty repercussions of actions down the generations, further root the stories deep in this most idiosyncratic culture and landscape. "Especially that crisp style where one word is better than two," he explains. "You go straight to the point."This attention to local verisimilitude has, paradoxically, seen Indridason become the latest in a line of Scandinavian thriller writers - Peter Hoeg, Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum - to spectacularly break out of their home markets in recent years. He has been described as "fascinating and brilliant" by Val McDermid. "You would not immediately have thought of Reykjavik as one of Europe's prominent murder centres," wrote Marcel Berlins, but Indridason's Icelandic capital "is as dark, scary and lethal as Ian Rankin's Edinburgh".
Indridason has regularly picked up literary prizes over the last few years, including last year's Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Silence of the Grave. Just a few days after winning the dagger he was paid what could be seen as a back-handed compliment when it was announced that in future, books in translation - three had won in the last five years - would no longer be eligible. The decision led to the organisers being accused of both Little Englandism and insulting the abilities of British writers. The upshot has been the creation of a new prize - although one less valuable than the main award - specifically for books in translation.
"That decision did surprise me and of course I can't agree it's a good development," says Indridason with exaggerated diplomacy, "but I don't really want to dwell on it. It was a great thing to have won, as when I started out people said I had nothing to write about because nothing ever happens in Iceland. You can't shoot people here. It's not Los Angeles.
But it turned out there was plenty to write about. The thing they didn't realise was that crime fiction is about so much more than just crime."
Indridason, born in 1961, says his earliest exposure to the genre came at age three. "One night I couldn't get to sleep and I went into the living room where my father was watching a film on television. It was Little Caesar. That was my introduction to crime and for a long time it was my favourite movie." That he should first have come across film, rather than books, was not inevitable. His father was the prominent Icelandic novelist Indridi Thorsteinsson. "He was also an editor and wrote for newspapers so the 'tap tap tap' of his typewriter was always there," recalls Indridason. "I kept my writing secret from him for quite a time. And when I did show him a manuscript he was at first astounded. But after that he gave me wonderful support."
After reading history at the university of Iceland, with a dissertation on Icelandic films, Indridason wrote on film for Morgunbladid, the biggest newspaper in the country, and edited two reference books on Icelandic cinema. His father's status made him hesitant to write his own fiction. "I didn't start until I was 34, which I thought was very old. Although now I'm 45 it seems like nothing. By then I'd seen so many bad movies that I knew how not to tell a story, as well as how to tell one."
He says he knew he had a good plot but was worried about writing at such length. "When we were at school we used to be given these pills that were sugary on the outside but contained cod liver oil inside. I wondered what might be the implications years later if they hadn't been filled with cod liver oil but something more sinister. In the end it wasn't effortless, but I made it. And then I had the 'tap tap tap' in my home."
He says he hadn't set out to write a thriller. "I didn't have a prejudice against crime writing, but when I started out crime fiction was looked down upon in Iceland. Every 10 years or so someone would write one, but they usually disappeared quite quickly because it wasn't considered a literary form." Times have changed. In the summer of 2003 Indridason occupied the top five places in the Icelandic bestseller lists and the following year his books made up seven of the 10 most borrowed from the Reykjavik library.
The crime fiction that first caught his eye (as it did for another global figure in crime writing, Martin Cruz Smith) came from Swedish Marxist husband-and-wife team Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, whose explicitly socially and politically aware Martin Beck novels were published in the 60s and 70s. "What I liked was that there were few fights or guns and all the action was in the characters. This was seemingly just the office life of a policeman doing a job, but it was fascinating."
Indridason's first book, Sons of Earth (1997), received a predictably tepid critical and commercial response. "One of the things they had against it was that the names were too Icelandic. A detective should be called Morse, or Taggart, or Rebus. Erlendur or [his colleagues] Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg just sounded wrong to them. Book two was the same. But then came Tainted Blood [published in 2000 in Iceland and in 2004 as his first book in English translation] and it all turned around. Suddenly all the Icelandic aspects of the books were praised."
He says he writes for an Icelandic readership "from an Icelandic perspective. I don't write for anyone else. So I was a little surprised that coming from Iceland seems to have added to the appeal for readers from abroad. It is a tremendous thrill that this tiny language can be spread."
He has been published in more than 30 countries, and although his overseas readership is a few books behind Iceland, he is aware of raised expectations and new pressures. "The best way to follow success is to hold on to those initial reasons you decided to write. Ian Rankin said before visiting a new city you should read crime fiction from there. That way you find out what's happening. The crime story can be used in so many ways to say something about society. There was a huge debate in Iceland about a genetic data base. I used that but what really interested me, was that there are no secrets with DNA."
Indridason is aware he is now at a stage in his career where he could spend more time touring and talking about his books than writing. "I prefer to be at home working. I'm not like Salinger or Thomas Pynchon but I can see the appeal." And his long-term aim is a simple one: "I want to really understand Erlendur." Part of that process means understanding his father and Iceland's recent history. Over the past 60 years Iceland has been transformed from a poor, essentially peasant country to an extremely affluent modern society. It is a process that has not been without national and individual pain.