She is astonished that nobody else beat her to the idea: Iceland bulges with crime writers. Yrsa, however, is one of only two to have been translated into English so far (the other is the chilling Arnaldur Indridason) and she is now published in 35 countries, appealing to fans of Nordic crime supremos Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, but free of the Weltschmerz of the one and the implausibilities of the other.
We head to the area the locals call “Pompeii” where the tops of a dozen houses poke out of the lava. These suburban villas lack the grandeur and aesthetic appeal associated with more famous excavation sites, but the effect is oddly poignant.
Yrsa has made friends with some of the people who lost their homes. “They were teenagers at the time. They remember the smell, and just being dumped on fishing boats wherever there was space. They were being seasick, some of them thought it was a war. It’s the middle of the night, you’re sleeping and then all of a sudden, boom, life is just collapsing."
Yrsa and Oli, her benign Viking of a husband, are grandparents in their late forties but like most Icelanders are wrinkle-free, and have the appearance and manner of enthusiastic mature students. As we ramble over the island, Yrsa laughs as she recalls time spent roaming about in search of suitable spots to dump dead bodies.
“When you’re writing a book, you’re not enjoying what the place has to offer. It was the same when I was in Greenland to research the next book. They wanted to show me how beautiful their country is, and I was just asking, what would happen if you put a dead body in front of the sleigh dogs? Would they eat it?”
They are enthusiastic guides. “This is my favourite place in Iceland,” Yrsa says. “The society here is the same as I remember when I was growing up. People here are in touch with life and death and how food gets on the table. It shows what a wonderful area it is that people who lost their homes came back and built new ones.”
Yrsa has a full-time job as a civil engineer, and she writes in the evenings. She had never thought of writing, she says, until she noticed how lousy the books were that her son was reading. She embarked on a successful series of comical children’s books with such appealing titles as We Want Xmas in July. “Then I started writing crime novels because I desperately needed a break from writing humorous books. It’s really hard to be funny all the time.”
But “humour started creeping in” and her readers have become as gripped by the domestic and romantic travails of her heroine, the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, as they are by her plots. But she is adept at the gruesome stuff too: Ashes to Dust opens with a scene in which a woman chokes on her own tongue after a killer injects it with Botox. The novel takes a swipe at the folly of those who, not having had the benefit of living in the Icelandic climate, attempt to halt the ageing process.
She is confident that the spirit of Heimaey will prevail again in the rest of Iceland. “We were on track to becoming very materialistic. People were fixating on worldly goods and status. I was one of them. I think the crash has definitely tempered that.” The people are angry, she says, and have shown their contempt for politicians by voting in a stand-up comedian as Mayor of Reykjavik. “But Icelanders have a gung-ho attitude. People are knitting sweaters again. We’re a nation of adapters.”
* Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is published by Hodder, £12.99.
Jake flew with www.icelandair.co.uk and www.airiceland.is and stayed at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. www.visiticeland.com
This is an Icelandic name. The last name is a patronymic, not a family name; this person is referred to by the given name Yrsa.
Vilborg Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (born in 1963) is an Icelandic writer of both crime novels and children's fiction. She has been writing since 1998. Her début crime novel was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. The central character in her crime novels so far is Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (Þóra Guðmundsdóttir), a lawyer. Yrsa has also written for children, and won the 2003 Icelandic Children's Book Prize with Biobörn.
Yrsa is married with two children, and she has a career as a civil engineer.
- Þar lágu Danir í því (1998)
- Við viljum jólin í júlí (1999)
- Barnapíubófinn, Búkolla og bókarræninginn (2000)
- B 10 (2001)
- Biobörn (2003)
Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series
- Þriðja táknið (2005), (English translation by Bernard Scudder: Last Rituals, US:2007, UK:2008)
- Sér grefur gröf (2006) (English translation by Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates: My Soul to Take, 2009)
- Aska (2007) (English translation by Philip Roughton, Ashes to Dust, UK:2010)
- Auðnin (2008) (Veins of Ice) (English translation by Philip Roughton, The Day is Dark, UK:2011)
- Horfðu á mig (2009) (English translation by Philip Roughton, Someone To Watch Over Me, UK:2013)
- Brakið (2011) (English translation by Victoria Cribb, The Silence of the Sea, UK:2014)
Freyja & Huldar (Children's House) series
- DNA (2014) (English translation by Victoria Cribb, The Legacy, UK:2017)
- Sogið (2015) (English translation by Victoria Cribb, The Reckoning, UK:2018)
- Aflausn (2016)
- Gatið (2017)
- Ég man þig (2010) (English translation by Philip Roughton, I Remember You, UK:2012)
- Kuldi (2012) (English translation by Victoria Cribb, The Undesired, UK:2015)
- Lygi (2013) (English translation by Victoria Cribb, Why Did You Lie?, UK: 2016)
- ^"Yrsa Sigurðardóttir". Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on the Reykjavík City Library website. Retrieved 2011-10-23.