I keep going on about how small Iceland is. But it’s true, it’s a compact place. The population is around a third of a million. This is on an island that’s a little larger than Ireland, which has over six million inhabitants. You could drive around Iceland in a day and a night, if you were really to put your foot down and not worry about the speeding fines that would inevitably stack up.
Iceland is also remote. It doesn’t feel as remote as it used to before the internet made the whole world smaller, or at last those parts of the world with broadband. But it’s still a rock in the North Atlantic that’s a long way from the next rocks, which is the set of Faroese rocks to the east or that vast ice-cap covered Greenlandic rock to the west.
The small size of Iceland and its population, and the remoteness of the place can present problems as well as opportunities for a writer, especially for a crime writer trying to dream up not-quite flawless criminal mayhem. What used to be another major problem is something that’s not really a problem any more; the fact that there was never much by the way of crime until relatively recently. I won’t thank my lucky stars that Icelanders appear to have become significantly less law-abiding in recent years, but it’s tempting.
There’s roughly a murder a year (one last year, three the year before, zero in 2008). Not that long ago one a decade was an unlikely number. Although violent crime still isn’t exactly common, there are places a visitor would be well advised to be wary of that would have been perfectly safe a generation ago. Where Iceland is truly world-class is not so much in its run-of-the-mill criminals, but in the imagination of the financial class that was able to strip the cupboard bare, largely legally; morally bankrupt, maybe, but within the letter of the law.
It’s also not easy to disappear in such a small society. Icelanders have disappeared without trace, as have a few visiting foreigners, the most recent one only a matter of weeks ago. In fact, more than a hundred Icelanders have disappeared without trace in the last forty years. The majority of them have been lost at sea, and while their loss is a tragic blow to their families, there’s little mystery there. That leaves around forty people who have vanished for one unknown reason or another, including a pair of teenage boys who disappeared without trace in 1994. These are the mystery people. Some of them have undoubtedly been victims of violent crime and others victims of accidents or hypothermia, while one or two may well have intended to vanish.
It’s disappearing and surviving that’s the problem. People can’t make themselves disappear in the way they can in a larger country. There’s no equivalent of a long-distance coach ride to Düsseldorf or Liverpool with a stolen set of identity documents. Among a third of a million people, someone is always going to be recognised sooner or later. You can’t pack up and start a new life on the other side of the country without someone asking ‘so, who are your people, then? I’m sure I used to work with your uncle…’
Sooner or later the truth will come out as you run into the woman who was your cousin’s high school sweetheart or a former work colleague or else someone you bought a car from a few years ago. It doesn’t help that tracing ancestry and relatives is something of a national obsession in a place where you only have to go back a dozen generations to find that practically everyone is related to everyone else.
You also can’t make yourself easily disappear by discreetly absconding out of the country. There’s only one international airport, and apart from a few flights to Greenland and the Faroes from regional airports, everything goes through Keflavík. There’s a ferry to the Faroes and Denmark, but that means getting to the other end of the country. There are cargo ships, but stowing away isn’t what it used to be and shipping lines don’t take kindly to stowaways as they can get heavily fined for them at the other end of the route. Apart from those options, it’s a very long swim to Scotland.
You get the picture? It creates a few headaches, while the short distances and the very few degrees of separation between any two individuals mean that paths inevitably cross, there are inevitable conflicts of interest and coincidences can happen in Iceland that would be far beyond credible in a larger society.
If you stand for long enough in the right place, you’ve a good chance of seeing virtually everyone in Reykjavík go past at some point, and pretty much everyone from outside the city passes through either the city airport, the bus station or the filling station at Staðarskáli fairly regularly. Sit there long enough at one of these places and you’ll be recognised sooner or later.
* Ed. note: this post originally appeared on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog.