Monday, 28 March 2016

Thin Ice Blog Tour – Newcastle Noir in conversation with Quentin Bates

What a fabulous way to take place in our first blog tour chatting with Quentin Bates about his latest publication – the Icelandic murder mystery Thin Ice!

Quentin was one of the first authors to agree to appear at and support Newcastle Noir, so it felt only right we accepted the chance to be part of this blog tour. Thanks so much to Linda MacFadyen for the invite to do this and of course to Quentin for the insightful responses. Can we encourage anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of getting to know his Icelandic crime series with the inimitable Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gisladottir, you won’t be disappointed!

• What got you started on this idea?
To start with I wanted to play with the idea of one set of bad guys robbing another, so a serious crime taking place but one that the police wouldn’t hear about unless some civilians happened to get caught up in it, which is just what happens in Thin Ice. The villains’ getaway to the sun goes wrong and that’s when their plans go badly adrift. I also wanted to explore what happens when two very different characters who don’t like or trust each other are forced to get along, and adding the two carjacked women to the mix made it even more interesting as the four of them were thrown together and isolated

Drug related crimes/organised crime in Iceland
There’s a lot of drugs in Iceland these days. I’ve no idea if there’s more in circulation than in other western countries, but there’s a lot of it about in Iceland. I gather that majority of the prison population is there for something drug-related, from people caught with a few grams of something funky to those convicted of heavyweight trafficking, although the real kingpins don’t tend to get their hands dirty or end up doing time.
It’s not something I get the feeling Iceland copes with all that comfortably, as heavy-duty dope is pretty new. But Icelanders do this well… Icelandic skunk is (so I’m told) exceptionally powerful and weed is rarely smuggled in these days as there’s enough quality home-grown for the market. I gather that the stuff that comes in from outside tends to be the harder chemical variety.
There had been an undercurrent of drugs for many years, a few people who indulged and liked to get quietly high, but in the years since I moved away it has become very prevalent.
It’s difficult to tell what’s going on with organised crime as it’s not exactly visible, but certainly in the years since the turn of the century there’s a new class of bad guys who have come from other countries. They tend to be more ruthless than the home-grown variety. While they seem to keep out of each other’s way, one day the two are going to clash and that’s going to be bloody.
 Then there’s also the cottage industry of distilling moonshine. That took off in a big way a few years ago when the government lifted the price of legal booze too dizzying levels and there’s no shortage of ‘landi’ to be had if you know where to ask.

Icelandic fatherhood & how it's portrayed in Thin Ice
Maybe things have changed now… but at one time it was nothing unusual for people to start families very young, in their early twenties or even earlier. It’s something that comes into the books as Gunna is no exception, although her circumstances are a little different for a variety of reasons. There’s no particular stigma attached to single parenthood, or being born out of wedlock, or families with half-siblings. It happens all the time, it’s no big deal and hasn’t been for a long time. Icelanders have long been more relaxed about sexual mores than we southerners used to be, although it hasn’t always been that way.
So there’s nothing unusual about families with an absent father somewhere in the background. In Thin Ice, Magni the down-on-his-luck former seaman is just such a character, the unhappily absent father who rarely sees his children. Gunna’s son Gísli hasn’t had a relationship at all with his own father, and I felt that this had been a motif through the books for long enough. It was time to (briefly) introduce Thorvaldur Hauksson and then shunt him off the scene. The poor lad’s been through enough trauma already, not least as he’s in the position of having two children of his own by different women. It’s a facet of Icelandic life, but I felt this had been dwelt on long enough so it was time to move on. But maybe I’ve also been unnecessarily hard on this particular family.

Biker gangs in Iceland
There are two several species of bikers in Iceland. There’s the disreputable kind who may or may not be involved in dubious activities, such as the Undertakers in Thin Ice. I wanted to explore a little of the idea of some of these guys seeing legitimate business opportunities ahead of them as well as less salubrious ways of turning a penny, hence Rafn, the über-smart Undertaker who has seen what he’s able to do for himself on the back of the bike gang’s business. Then there are the silver bikers, often professional people in middle age who have some very smart wheels that they bring out at weekends and then go back to the office or the golf course on Monday. At first glance it’s not easy to tell them apart as they all wear leather…
I know a few bikers in Iceland, but they’re all the silver variety, and I have to admit that the Undertakers are (almost) entirely imaginary.

How representative is Magni's experience of the state of the fishing industry in Iceland?
Ah… I can go on about this for hours… There’s nothing unusual about Magni’s experience. People can be laid off at the drop of a hat as boats and quotas are sold, and the older they are the harder it can be to find another berth. Iceland’s fishing industry has contracted enormously and there has been a great deal of pain involved, much of which could have been avoided with wiser management. I hesitate to say too much about fisheries management here, but the quota system absolutely hasn’t been the unqualified success it has been trumpeted as. Fair enough, for a fairly small group of businesses, it has been pretty good. For many other people, and for many smaller communities, it has been a nightmare. It’s very much a dog-eat-dog environment and in many ways what has developed is completely mad. But the problem with the ITQ system is that once the genie is out of the box, it stays out of the box. There’s no way back. It’s all very controversial in Iceland, although it gets very sensitive when anyone outside Iceland (like me) says anything vaguely derogatory about it all.

How much consultation have you had with the police in Reykjavik to inform your writing?
I have a couple of friends in the police force and I can go to them with questions, but I try not to overdo it as I don’t want to flood them with questions. I’ll check points of procedure with them to make sure I’m not making massive mistakes, but getting it exactly right also has to balance the needs of the story. I’m really more interested in hearing how they interact, how they speak to each other and what they think of their superiors – the background stuff rather than the fine details of which hat they’d wear for a particular job.

Timeline of the novel - why a week?
No particular reason, that’s just the way it worked out. It was longer in the original draft. The last quarter especially rambled too much, so quite a few scenes were pulled and condensed to make it tighter. A week seemed to be about right and it seems to be my natural habitat as the last few books also covered similar time spans.

Being fluent in Icelandic, are you able to convey an Icelandic 'voice' in your writing, even in English?
I’d like to, but I’m not sure I manage to accomplish this. There are a couple of places where I’ve included idioms that to me seem perfectly acceptable, and the copyeditor always highlights these, maybe concerned that people won’t get them. Generally these get to stay in there. I’m sure my readers are a shrewd and intelligent bunch who can figure out the occasional Icelandic idiom when it’s rendered into English.
American readers complain that the books sound too British. Sorry, Americans, but that’s just the way they are.

The sense there's criminal potential in all of us
I’m sure of it. Anyone plucked from their comfort zone and starting to get hungry is going to become desperate, and their scruples will drop away rapidly the emptier their bellies get. Desperate people will take desperate measures, and turning normal people into desperate characters is central to writing crime. If all the supermarkets closed down, we’d find that we’re only three meals away from a revolution. All right, maybe four. Or just two if the TV stations closed down as well.

Prospects for Icelandic young people
Very different to what they were in the past, although history tends to repeat itself, with variations. A generation or two ago there was a mass movement of people from the coastal and rural regions of Iceland to the capital area as they sought different work to what was available in their smaller communities, as well as also seeking education that was only available in the city. That stripped the smaller towns and villages of many young people who went away to study and never returned. I get the feeling that the same thing is happening again now, except that people are leaving the country, often for much the same reasons as their parents and grandparents left the countryside all those years ago. There has also been an exodus in the wake of the financial crash back in 2008 and a great many people moved abroad, just as also happened in 1968 when the herring fishery came to a sudden and unexpected halt, but that’s another story.

Is the Emperor a real location?
It’s not a particular bar, but it could be any one of several drinking spots. I’m no night owl and I keep my research for daylight hours. The bus station cafeteria and the couple of dockside eateries mentioned in the books are very real.

The vulnerability of empty properties during the winter
There are plenty of summer houses around the country that it wouldn’t be a huge problem for someone with a little determination to break into and stay a night or two. A lot of people have these summer cottages, but for the most part they’re just that, summer cottages and they stand empty through much of the winter.

The weather/landscape as complicit in crime
Crime and heavy weather seem to go hand-in-hand. For some reason, a winter backdrop of snow or a storm is a more comfortable setting for a crime story. It shouldn’t have to be, although there’s a certain expectation from both publishers and readers that anything with a Nordic setting should be have snow on the streets. I deliberately set one story (Summerchill) at the blazing height of a hot summer to challenge this, and the publisher still produced it with a snow scene on the cover.
Weather is more important to me than landscape, although the two are inextricably entwined. The weather is such a vital feature of life in Iceland that for any scene I write, even if it’s just two people talking with a desk between them, I have to have an idea of what kind of day it is outside. Weather colours everything, and in a nation of what was until very recently predominantly farmers and fishermen, weather is crucial to safety and survival.

How do you feel Gunna has developed since you first created her?
I’m not sure she has developed all that much. She was already fairly cynical and suspicious right from the start and hasn’t become any less so. In the first book she was a uniformed officer in a coastal backwater and quite happy not working too hard as she had children at that point who needed more attention. By the time the second book was being written, she had been given a new job in Reykjavík and a lot more responsibility that she just took to without breaking a sweat, although that elusive promotion to the next step on the ladder still eludes her. Maybe in the next book… we’ll see. I feel that the people around her have developed while she remains much the same. Her children have gone through all kinds of traumas, especially Gísli, and maybe Laufey will be next to rock the boat, while Gunna also acquired a bloke in the first book who is still there, somewhat to my surprise.

• 'Women rarely disappear' - is it different regarding men who disappear in Iceland
Strangely, it seems to be only men who disappear. I don’t think there’s a single instance of a woman’s unsolved disappearance in the last fifty or so years, while there seem to be several men every year who vanish. Over the years, a proportion of them have been lost at sea, so what happened to them is known even though they aren’t always found. But there are quite a few mysterious disappearances, such as Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson who both disappeared in the 1970s. People were arrested and served prison sentences for their murders, on what now appears to be the flimsiest of evidence, but there is still no indication of what happened to them. People can get lost in the snow or in the wilderness. Even walking your dog in a lava field could be dangerous if you don’t have a phone with you. Some of them possibly wanted to disappear for whatever reasons. Some of them may well have been victims of crime, but who knows? Maybe one day old bones will come to light to tell us where these people are, if not what happened to them.

Quentin, thanks again for taking time out to give us more insight into your writing. We wish you every success with Thin Ice and look forward to welcoming you back to the Toon for Newcastle Noir 2016!

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