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Michael Ridpath

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Updated: 08/04/2022
Home > Where the Shadows Lie > Background / research > Background / research Where The Shadows Lie is an important book for me. It is four years since I decided to change genres, and this is the result.

I used to write financial thrillers, I have written eight. But when I decided that I wanted to write about a distinctive detective, and I was searching around for a distinctive place for this detective to come from, I came up with Iceland.

Iceland is a fascinating country. It has a population of 300,000, and only about three murders a year. This is a bit of a problem, because I kill off at least three people in each of my books. But Oxford has about the same population and Oxford managed to sustain many a Morse novel.

Iceland certainly is a distinctive place. The people are a hard-working, manic lot with a highly developed sense of humour, big on irony. For example a comedian named Jón Gnarr recently stood in the elections for mayor of Reykjavík. He said he was standing because he wanted an indoor job, with a car and a chauffeur to keep him company when he was driving. His main manifesto pledge was to get a polar bear for Reykjavík zoo. He won 51% of the vote and is now mayor.

We assume Icelanders are a bunch of modern day tall blonde Vikings, but this isn’t quite true. Genetic analysis shows that their male ancestors are mostly from Norwegian stock, as you would expect, but the female ancestors are from British and Irish stock. That’s what a couple of centuries of raping and pillaging will do for you.

The Icelandic naming system is, well, weird. An Icelandic family of four can have four different last names. For example under the Icelandic system I would be Michael Andrewsson and my wife would be Barbara Jamesdóttir. Our son would be Nicholas Michaelsson and our daughter Julia Michaelsdóttir. Complicated on family holidays when they all check into a hotel together.

The language is essentially a kind of Norse Latin, not very different to what the Vikings spoke. I have tried to learn it , but without much success, it’s really difficult. There are a couple of words I love. When an Icelander has an unexpected piece of luck he shouts “Hvalreki!” which means “Beached whale!”. There is no better thing that can happen to an Icelander than have a whale wash up on the beach outside his house. And the Icelandic word for Saturday is “Laugardagur” which means “washing day” or perhaps “bath night”.

The overwhelming theme in Iceland is the clash of the old and the new. In 1940 Iceland was probably the poorest country in Europe, by 2007 it was one of the most advanced. Every Icelander seems to have a Facebook page; every Icelander’s grandmother believed in elves.

Elves. They are actually huldufólk or hidden people and various surveys have shown that a high proportion of Icelanders believe in them, or at least don’t deny their existence. These beings don’t have pointy ears but look like normal people. They live in rocks and you don’t mess with them. There is a road from the airport to Reykjavík which avoids an elf rock, and an oil pipeline has to make a similar diversion. In both cases when they came to moving the rocks the elves lived in the construction equipment kept on breaking down until eventually the engineers gave up, and left the stones standing.

The conflict between the old and the new applies to the landscape as well. Bleak mountains, beautiful white glaciers, fjords, lava fields with mosses nibbling into the rock. And there are of course those spectacular volcanic eruptions. It looks ancient, but actually it is very new geologically speaking, work in progress. And of course the landscape is full of myths and legends, trolls and elves, and the sites of the great medieval sagas.

These sagas are amazing achievements and I would urge you to read one. They were written in the thirteenth century and they are stories about the Viking settlers in the tenth century. They read a bit like modern thrillers: terse characterisation, lots of action, colourful characters: Thorolf Lame Foot, Ketil Flat Nose and Ulf the Unwashed being my favourites. Sure there is lots of killing, but there is also lust, jealousy, drunkenness and some legal wrangling too. Plus some seriously exciting beached whale scenes.

Having decided on Iceland, I now needed an Icelandic detective. Naming a detective normally takes a lot of thought, but in this case it was easy – Magnus. The late Magnus Magnusson, who moved to Edinburgh when he was six months old, is every Briton’s favourite Icelander, and his name is far too good to waste.

But then a problem arose: I needed a detective who spoke Icelandic but was also a bit of an outsider. This was partly because I am obviously an outsider and would find it hard to pull off book after book written from the point of view of someone whose language I didn’t speak. But also I wanted to point out the many extraordinary aspects of Icelandic society, which would be difficult if Magnus was a native – to him they wouldn’t seem worth mentioning.

So I devised a complicated background for Magnus, which not only addressed this difficulty, but also gave him a set of personal insecurities of the kind that any good fictional detective should carry around with him.

Magnus’s story goes as follows. He was born in Iceland, but his parents split up when he was a child, and Magnus followed his father to Boston where his father took a job as a professor of Mathematics. So Magnus grew up a lone Icelandic kid in an American High School, reading the sagas for comfort. He went to university and was planning to go to Law School, when his father was murdered. The local police couldn’t find the killer, and despite his obsession with the task, neither could Magnus. But it caused him to change his career plans and become a cop.

Twelve years later, he is a homicide detective in Boston when he gets caught up in a police corruption scandal and he needs to disappear for his own safety. The Reykjavík police are looking for an adviser to help them with increasing levels of big-city crime. So Magnus moves to Reykjavík.

He still doesn’t know who killed his father. I do, but I’m not telling you, or him. Not for a few books anyway.

So, I was happy with my detective, but I needed a plot. I did some background research. I read some sagas, the medieval tales of Icelandic settlers in the tenth century, and found them fascinating. So, a lost saga then. How about a professor of Icelandic Literature found dead at his summer house by a lake?

OK, so what’s so great about this saga? I wanted something really big, something that would resonate well beyond Iceland. An answer came quickly: Lord of The Rings.

Not bad. I didn’t know much about Tolkien, but I thought it plausible that he had an interest in the sagas. I remembered at university reading an academic article by him published in 1936 about Beowulf. So I did some more reading.

Amazingly something happened which almost never does: the more I found out about Tolkien and the sagas, the more it all fit together.

Tolkien was obsessed by Icelandic sagas, from the time when, as a child, he first read the translation by William Morris of the Saga of the Volsungs. He started an Old Norse drinking club at Leeds University in the 1920s, where they sang Icelandic drinking songs and read Icelandic tales. It turns out there is a bloody great volcano in Iceland called Mount Hekla which erupts all the time. It was known as the Mouth of Hell in medieval times, and is the perfect place to drop a ring, should you be passing by.

The most famous lost saga in Iceland is Gaukur’s Saga. Not much is known about Gaukur except that he lived at a farm called Stöng in the shadow of Mount Hekla. So much in the shadow it was covered in ash in an eruption in 1104 and not rediscovered until 1939.

So everything slotted into place. Phew!

The problem was that I didn’t quite believe the story myself. I don’t go in for the supernatural very much, and I didn’t want my man Magnus to either. You can’t write a story you don’t believe in.

What to do? Go to the pub with my friend Toby, that’s what. By the third pint Toby had the problem sorted. Magnus could remain cynical, so could I, and so could the readers, if they so wished. Some of the other characters in the book would be credulous. And I should inject just the tiniest hint of something otherworldly in the book, the barest clue, to set the reader wondering.

That worked. I started typing.

The result is Where The Shadows Lie. I enjoyed writing it, I hope you enjoy reading it.