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!
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
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.
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
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
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.
representative is Magni's experience of the state of the fishing industry in
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
• 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
• 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
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
• Is the Emperor a
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
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
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 Iceandlook forward
to welcoming you back to the Toon for Newcastle