Iceland: The New Hot Spot for Mystery Novels

I recently returned from Iceland and was fascinated by the quality and depth of its bookstores. For a country of only 300,000 people, Iceland has a fertile written heritage, starting with its medieval Viking sagas and continuing to a rich collection of modern mystery novelists.

photo of Icelandic waterside town

A typical Icelandic fishing village.

Is their voracious reading habit because of the cold weather? Iceland’s recent economic crash? The BBC recently reported that Iceland has more writers, more books read, and more books published, per capita, than any other nation. It’s estimated that one out of ten Icelanders will publish a book. Unfortunately, only about three percent of Icelandic works are translated for the English market.

Iceland hasn’t yet developed the international reputation its Scandinavian neighbors have for mystery novels and thrillers. The English-language series I found most prominently displayed in the bookstores of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, (and also available on Amazon) was the Reykjavik Murder Mystery series by Arnaldur Indridason. His prose is as sparse and clean as Iceland in October, which happens to be when the first book in the series, Jar City, takes place.

The book is noir-ish, featuring Reykjavik Detective Erlendur. Like a good noir hero, he’s divorced and feeling his age. One of his children is a junkee, the other in rehab. Chapter one drops the reader into a murdered man’s apartment, while the Detective examines the body. It seems like a simple enough crime against an elderly male –and most likely random – except for one clue: a cryptic three-word message left beside the body. Tantalizingly, the author only gives the reader one of the three words, driving an otherwise prosaic scene forward.

photo of moss-covered lava field

A lava field in Iceland, covered in moss.

The Day Is Dark, by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, is another currently “hot” Icelandic book, though it is largely set in Greenland. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, an attorney, departs Iceland for a snowbound outpost in Greenland, where Icelandic employees have disappeared. Malignant townsfolk and hints of danger in the woods ratchet up the tension in this book, which is part mystery and part thriller.

Looking for a real classic? The medieval Icelandic sagas are jam-packed with murder, mayhem, and magic. Ranking as one of the world’s most important literary works, the sagas take place around the beginning of the last millennium, and have preserved much of what modern scholars know about the daily life, religion, magical practices, and adventures of the early Norse men and women, including their astonishing journeys to America.


Posted by Kirsten Weiss. Kirsten works part-time as a writer and part-time as an international development consultant. She writes the Riga Hayworth paranormal mystery novels. Her fifth book in the series, The Elemental Detective, will be published in December, 2013.

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  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    November 5, 2013 at 10:40 am

    That lava field is really creepy looking, Kirsten. I’m going to check out Jar City. I love police procedurals and books set in places I’ve never been. The Day Is Dark sounds good too. Ack, too many books, too little time!

    • Reply
      Kirsten Weiss
      November 5, 2013 at 10:45 am

      Apparently the lava fields and other odd rock formations inspired a lot of Icelandic folk beliefs about little people, and when I was there, I could see why!

    • Reply
      June 20, 2020 at 1:02 pm

      I’ve watched the Valhalla Murders on Netflix recently and I could swear I’d read the story as a novel not so long ago but couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s bothering me. Do you know if it?

      • Reply
        June 29, 2020 at 9:37 am

        Sorry, I don’t. But now I’m going to watch the Valhalla Murders! Thanks for the tip.

        I did get curious and found out it was co-authored by crime writer Óttar M. Norðfjörð, as well as screenwriters Margrét Örnólfsdóttir and Otto Geir Borg. If it’s based on a book, I assume it’s based on one of Ottar’s.


  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    November 5, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Kirsten, how fascinating! How cool it would be to live in a culture where books are such an important part of life, as opposed to Honey Boo Boo and other trashy entertainment. Thanks for the look!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    November 6, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    What an interesting statistic that Icelanders keep themselves occupied through the long winters, no doubt, by reading and writing. Who knew? That’s some ruff terrain they live in. One can only imagine how they survive in it. I could be losing it here, but didn’t they have an active volcano recently? I appreciate the pictures. I’ve never seen Iceland without, well, without ice and snow. Burrrrr! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      November 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      I’m with you , Karen. Brrr!! And I don’t think I could take those gray skies for long. The Icelanders are a hearty bunch indeed.

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    November 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I kind of wish I’d gone in the summer, when it’s even more green. But my primary motivation was to catch a view of the Northern Lights, and those are more a wintertime phenomena.

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