Iceland has a famously low crime rate and is consistently rated one of the safest countries in the world. But that has not stopped some of the top literary talents in Iceland from penning crime novels. Icelanders perhaps take the stories with a grain of salt, accepting that while crime does happen, it certainly does not happen on the scale suggested by crime fiction writers. The best of these novels, however, translates well to international audiences who are hungry for crime fiction. Here are our top 7 Icelandic crime novels.
We have to start with the queen of Icelandic crime fiction, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. A truly prolific writer, Yrsa has published nearly a book every year for the past fifteen years. She has some independent works of crime fiction but also two popular series: The Children House series and the books following Icelandic lawyer Þóra Guðmundsdóttir. We recommend starting with The Legacy (2017), part of the Children‘s House series, which centres on a children‘s home in Iceland. In this novel, a detective named Huldar has to solve a crime witnessed by a nine-year-old girl who has come to live at the home after the brutal murder of her mother. Sound like your kind of crime fiction? Good news! Nearly all of Yrsa‘s books have been translated to English, so you can continue the series.
Arnaldur began writing crime novels centred on Detective Erlendur in 1997. Erlendur would appear in several other novels, and there are 14 books in the series today. Arnaldur became one of the most popular writers in Iceland and Scandinavia in the early 2000s, winning the Glass Key Award for Nordic crime in 2002 and 2003, and the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2005. The third book in the series, Jar City, is perhaps Arnadlur‘s most well-known crime novel – and for good reason! Detective Erlendur has to solve a bewildering crime that left a 70-year-old man dead with no clues except a photograph and a cryptic note.
Yrsa and Arnaldur were of the same generation and seem to have passed the torch of writing excellent crime fiction to younger writers like Ragnar Jónasson. Like his predecessors, Ragnar has published several novels in different series. If people enjoyed his Dark Iceland series, which now is up to 6 books, they absolutely loved the Hidden Iceland series. The Darkness (2015) and The Mist (2017) became international sensations. Dark Iceland takes place in and around Siglufjörður, a remote fishing village in North East Iceland, and this isolation adds more mystery to the stories. The hit Icelandic TV show „Trapped“ is based on this series! We recommend Snow Blind (2010) or The Darkness as a great place to start with Ragnar‘s work.
If Yrsa and Arnaldur set the standard for Icelandic crime fiction, Lilja is the brilliant pupil who breaks all the rules. One of the first authors of this genre to include LGBTQ+ characters, Lilja also has no issues with killing off beloved or main characters. Her most popular series, Reykjavík Noir, takes place during the financial crisis of 2008 and deals with real human issues, such as drug addiction, custody battles, and corruption. The Guardian chose Cage (2017), the final instalment of the series, as their Book of the Year. It also won Blóðdropinn, an award for best Icelandic Crime Fiction. Not all of Lilja‘s books have been translated into English, but the Reykjavík Noir has, and it is the best place to start.
Eva Björg Ægisdóttir
A newcomer to the world of crime fiction, Eva published her masterpiece The Creak on the Stairs in 2020 at 32 years old. The novel takes place in Akranes, a small town about 10 km north of Reykjavík – a place where murders do not typically occur. When a body washes ashore near a lighthouse, the police team – led by Elma – has to piece together the clues from the victim‘s dark and mysterious past to try and find who murdered her. The narration is even-keeled and matter-of-fact, which means the stark contrast of emotions leaps off the page to startle you all the more.