Interview: Ragnar Jónasson, The DARK ICELAND series

There is a special place in my heart for Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series. Jónasson's Dark Iceland debut, SNOWBLIND, was actually one of the first books I spotted on Instagram, back before I had even considered starting Crime by the Book. I can no longer remember where exactly I saw it, but I remember being instantly drawn to the spooky, atmospheric cover. Now, years later, I am finally reading (and loving!) the Dark Iceland series, and I am so thrilled to have had the chance to chat with Ragnar himself about his books. Read on for our discussion of crime writing, Ragnar's suggested Icelandic crime fiction reading list, and more information on the upcoming Dark Iceland TV series!

A huge thank you to both Ragnar and his publisher, Orenda Books, for making this Q&A possible. 

Crime by the Book: To get things started, where did you first conceive of the idea for the Dark Iceland series? What inspired you?

Ragnar Jónasson: The inspiration was Siglufjordur, my father’s home town, a hidden gem in Iceland. The northermost town in Iceland, surrounded by mountains and the sea, and only accessible through a mountain tunnel. I have been reading crime fiction for years, especially Golden Age crime from the UK and US, and this setting struck me as a very fitting setting for the kind of crime novel I wanted to write. And when I had written Snowblind, I wanted to stay with the characters and the place, and that’s how the series began.

CBTB: How do you plan out your books? 

RJ: The books are planned quite a lot in advance, but mostly in my head (or sometimes in my notebooks). I know what story I want to tell, the main characters, the issues I want to address, and most importantly the plot in as much detail as possible – and the twist at the end!

CBTB: When you wrote your first book in the Dark Iceland series, did you have a plan that it would become Book #1 in a series, or did that idea develop after you finished writing Book #1? Similarly, do you have a plan for how many books you wish to write in the series? 

RJ: Snowblind was essentially the first book in the series, although I had written another book about Ari Thor a year earlier, before he joined the police (when he was just a student looking for his father, and solving that mystery, of course). So Dark Iceland started with Snowblind, and I think I knew pretty quickly that I would want to write another one. There are now five Dark Iceland books, plus this early Ari Thor novel. I am working on a new book now, although in a different series, but I hope to return to Ari Thor.

CBTB: I'm always curious to know how crime writers find a balance between accurate portrayals of police work and applying their own imagination to a story. What kind of research into police methodology went into your books? How much of that research did you end up applying to the story? 

RJ: My focus is always on the story and the characters, rather than the procedures of the police. When I read crime fiction, my interest lies in the development of the characters and the way they interact and the essence of the plot, so that’s the kind of books I want to write. The level of police work is therefore minimal, but I have a good friend at the DA's office in Reykjavik who reads all my books before they are published and makes sure that those details are correct.

CBTB: In my experience reading your books so far, one of my favorite aspects is how atmospheric they are. Your descriptions of landscape and setting are so vivid, I can feel the emotions they inspire in your characters - particularly, the sense of claustrophobia! The land itself almost seems to be its own character. Can you tell me a bit about your personal experience living in Iceland, and how this influenced your characterization of the land in your books? 

RJ: I think Iceland has influenced me greatly in writing the books. They are always set in real places, usually places that I find fascinating. The more time I spend in Iceland the more I come to appreciate its beauty, isolation and nature, even the weather. The winters are dark, but they bring us the northern lights and the snow, and the summers are so bright that it is utterly amazing. Siglufjordur is a key character in the series, but I do however set some of the books in other parts of northern Iceland to some extent, and all of those places are definitely worth a visit! The claustrophobia is also a key player in some of the books, it is really interesting to try to analyse the effect of an isolated environment, and how people can react differently to it.

CBTB: Icelandic crime fiction is a very new subgenre for me, and I'm sure it is for many of my fellow American crime readers as well. I'm so excited to begin exploring it! Are there any particular Icelandic crime writers who have inspired you, or whose books you are currently reading and enjoying?

 RJ: The two Icelandic crime writers who have inspired me and a whole generation of Icelandic crime writers are Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir – the king and queen of Icelandic crime fiction. When Indridason published his first novel in 1997, Icelandic crime fiction was almost unheard of, but he paved the way for others, and he is now an international bestseller with his brilliant Detective Erlendur series. The same can be said of Yrsa. She has enjoyed great success internationally with her amazing crime novels and thrillers, and really opened doors for many other Icelandic authors. She has been very supportive of my work as well. I would also like to mention another pioneer of Icelandic crime fiction, Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, who is also available in the US. I would recommend Arnaldur’s Hypothermia, Yrsa’s The Silence of the Sea and Viktor’s House of Evidence.

CBTB: I am so excited to hear of the fantastic news that the Dark Iceland series has been optioned for TV. Congratulations! I know it's still very early on, but what can you tell us about the TV show?

RJ: The option was acquired by On The Corner, producers of Academy Award winning documentary Amy, about Amy Winehouse, so the series is in very good hands. I have met the producers and they are very dedicated to the project. They have said that they would like to film it in Iceland, but in the English language. Here you can see an interview in English with the producer, with some more details on their

CBTB: What book are you currently reading? (Or, what was the last book that you read?)

RJ: I am always reading so many books at once! Currently these include Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, one of my all-time favourite Icelandic authors. If you haven’t read any of her books I highly recommend The Greenhouse as well. I’m also always re-reading Agatha Christie, this time around The Man in the Brown Suit. I’ve also been reading Renée Knight’s Disclaimer and Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird. I’d also like to recommend another one I’ve been reading recently, Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, a true masterpiece.