As anyone who follows me on my various social media sites has no doubt noticed, I have spent the last few weeks in Iceland. This trip was originally planned for November 2020, but of course the global pandemic had other ideas. Fortunately, we were able to adjust all travel plans and reservations without any troubles and the trip of a lifetime commenced this November.
The genesis for this trip was several years earlier when one of my favorite crime fiction authors, Ragnar Jónasson, mentioned that I should consider attending Iceland Noir – a smaller crime fiction convention with a focus on Nordic storytelling, an area of the crime fiction oeuvre of which I am fairly obsessed. That conversation lit the spark, but my husband and I decided (along with the various friends who quickly jumped on board for the trip) that if we were going to do this, we would also take enough time to explore as much of Iceland as possible.
The plan was to spend almost a week out in Borgarnes, a smaller community about an hour and a half outside Reykjavik. Because it was distant from the main city, the isolation would give us the best opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis, as well as making for a convenient launch point for our many travels North. Those northernly journeys took us to Snæfellsnes peninsula, where we saw the famous black church of Búdir, various waterfalls, and other glorious views. The Borgarnes location did make the extended travel South to Vik (for their famous black sand beach and a lava tube excursion) quite the trek – about the same as a journey from Maryland to New York – but those experiences were so spectacular that it was all worth it. Then the second part of the trip would see our group relocate into Reykjavik proper, where we would experience city life – museums, restaurants, walking the streets at night in the snow, shopping, and so much more. Our hotel, the Reykjavik Centrum, was also the perfect location for those of us who were attending Iceland Noir during this second half of the vacation.
Which brings me to the main point of this post. How is Iceland Noir different than most other crime fiction conventions?
Let me count the ways…
- Yes, every crime book festival I have been to has been a friendly environment, but Iceland Noir (like the Nation itself) couldn’t be more welcoming to both newcomers and the regulars. The organizers – some of whom are authors and the others volunteers – embraced us with love from the moment we first arrived at the doors of the exclusive club where many of the events were held. It was enough to make every person in attendance feel special and appreciated for making the trip to Iceland Noir.
- It is an incredibly intimate convention. I honestly don’t know how many people were registered and in attendance, but I would estimate around 100. I also don’t know if these numbers were affected by the pandemic – I am fairly sure that was a factor – and the restrictions that the country placed on social gatherings. I will say that I never felt like anything that was intended was compromised by any unexpected rules and regulations.
- Because of the size, most of the morning and afternoon panels were held in the KJARVAL CLUB. This club is a members-only institution in Iceland and our Iceland Noir registration gave us access to the premises for the duration of the convention. A private room in the back was reserved for Iceland Noir, so we gathered on couches and chairs in this intimate setting to listen to authors talk about their books and various other topics. It truly felt like attending a literary salon in someone’s private home. I have never experienced anything quite that intimate in all my 13+ years of attending crime fiction cons.
- Unlike most book conventions, there was no on-site book room for attendees to purchase books. There was a conveniently located bookstore that contained a surprising number of English translations for those who desperately wanted to grab a title, but due to timing they didn’t focus their inventory on the author attendees. November is part of Iceland’s book flood – a time of year when all books in Iceland are published with an aim toward holiday gift giving. (Remember, it’s a tradition in Iceland to give books and chocolate on Christmas Eve and then everyone retires to their bed to read the night away. My kind of celebration!) So justifiably, the bookshops are focused on keeping their inventory aimed on the citizens and their holiday shopping. It’s also worth mentioning that books are *very* expensive in Iceland, with a standard paperback selling for $20-30 in US currency.
- For this reason, and others, Iceland Noir is not a sales-focused convention. There were even some panels where the authors didn’t even talk about their books. There were also some Icelandic authors whose books were not yet translated into English on the panels. This would likely never fly at other conventions where authors are often laser-focused on getting prime panel slots in order to – in theory – sell more books. Ironically, I think this more laid-back approach probably translated into more book sales. Many of us in the audience were making lists of books to purchase when we return home – or even ordering right from the comfort of our con couch as the authors chatted. It was so refreshing to not have the sales pitch be the primary purpose of the convention. After all, if one is in attendance at a book convention, the likelihood of that individual buying books is pretty darn high. Authors can sabotage that by seeming too desperate at times.
- Iceland Noir built in a one-hour break at lunchtime and a two-hour break for evening dining into the schedule. Because the convention is a one-track event, meaning there are no simultaneous panels – so attendees do not have to pick and choose what to attend, and the breaks allowed for eating without missing anything.
- The evening panels were held at a cultural center called IDNO. This was a larger space with more traditionally placed rows of chairs as one would find at most convention panels. These panels ran from 7-10pm, so much later than many other conventions. These were the panels that focused on the year’s Guests of Honor. In this case: Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, AJ Finn, Emelie Schepp, Anthony Horowitz, Shari Lapena, Liz Nugent, and Sara Blaedel.
- Two of these panels were moderated by politicians. Both the Prime Minister of Iceland – Katrín Jakobsdóttir – and the First Lady of Iceland – Eliza Reid – conducted interviews with Ian Rankin and Anthony Horowitz respectively. It was clear that both of these impressive women were longtime fans of the authors and genre. This was not a perfunctory obligation they were filling (as it would have been for some other political figures.) They were engaging and knowledgeable about the authors they were interviewing – showing a depth of understanding that could only come from being longtime fans. It was a true honor to be in the room with them!
Other panels were similar to what one would expect at other crime fiction conventions. Topics like “Murderous Islands,” “F#$%ed Up Families,” “Screen vs Book,” and “How Sinister is too Sinister.” The early morning chit-chat panels were just as described: A group of authors sitting around chatting about any number of contemporary topics. On one of those, the authors agreed to accept challenges from the audience on what to include in their next novel. I challenged Sara Blaedel to work in the Icelandic Yule Cat into her next book – which she accepted by saying “I used to like you, Kris.” LOL. So you can expect to see the Yule Cat mentioned in one of her future novels and remember that it was a challenge accepted at Iceland Noir.
I highly recommend Iceland Noir to anyone that enjoys crime fiction conventions. It has such a fresh and unusual feel that its memory will linger long after the event is over. This year’s organizers, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, Óskar Guðmundsson & Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are to be commended for putting together a festive event during difficult times. I certainly hope to return for another Iceland Noir experience in future years.
For me, it was a great opportunity to catch up some old friends. It has been far too long since I had seen Ann Cleeves, Sara Blaedel, Karin Salvalaggio, Jeff Siger, Mark Edwards, Stan Trollip, Ragnar Jónasson, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. But it was also a time to meet new friends and folks I have been dying to meet, such as: Óskar Guðmundsson, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Matt Wesolowski, Michael Ridpath, Will Carver, and Will Dean. Of course the wonderful Karen Sullivan (Orenda Books) brought me a ARCs. I also got to chat and take a photo with Abby Endler (of Crime By the Book), meet the delightful Ewa Sherman (of Nordic Lighthouse), talk with the incredible Jacky Collins, and meet the talented Íris Tanja Flygenring (star of Katla and Trapped.)
I even had limited edition BOLO Books swag for Iceland Noir. What could be more appropriate than a zipper pull with the BOLO Books eyeball/book avatar on it – with everyone running around in coats, hats, and with backpacks. They proved incredible successful. And yes, I did come home with some – so many a contest is in order for blog followers.
Until then, happy holidays from me and the Yule Cat. Hope to see you someday in Iceland!