3 June 2011 by Luke McCormick
Wexas member and author, Michael Ridpath, talks to Wexas Channel Editor, Luke McCormick, about his new Icelandic-based Fire and Ice crime thriller series and how Wexas helped in shaping the work.
Ridpath worked for eight years as a bond trader in the city before turning his hand to financial thrillers and now an Icelandic crime series blending Norse mythology and just a touch of Tolkien.
Amid Iceland's wild, volcanic landscape, rumours swirl of an ancient manuscript containing a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power.
The manuscript, which is believed to have inspired Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, exists ... but is it worth killing for?
The series follows the exploits of an Iceland-born, Boston-raised homicide detective named Magnus as he untangles murder from myth, while investigating the unsolved murder of his own father.
Ridpath's thrillers have been described by The Times as 'riveting reading', with The Guardian saying, 'Ridpath has that read-on factor that sets bestsellers apart'.
What led you to write Where the Shadows Lie?
"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 to make him stand out from all those other on the bookshelves. I came up with Iceland.
About 15 years ago I visited Iceland on a book tour and thought it would be brilliant to write about it at some point. When I discussed with friends who had read my books they told me it was not a place they were entirely familiar with, but it was somewhere they'd love to find out more about.
I tried other places to set novels, but kept coming back to Iceland. Magnus arrives as an outsider and this allows me to write about the country through the eyes of someone who is not familiar with the culture, although he speaks Icelandic, which allows him to interview people."
Tell me about your new book?
"In Where the Shadows Lie, a professor who finds a lost saga is killed. I thought it would be great to explore if perhaps Tolkien knew about this saga and used it as the basis for the lord of the rings.
There is a Volcano in Iceland called Hekla - it was known in medieval times as the 'mouth of hell'. What a great place to throw a ring if you had one!
Iceland really is like Mordor and it turns out Tolkien knew a great deal about the country and various historical sagas.
He once took six months to figure out something that happened in the hobbit and he wrote a letter to his friend in Iceland about it. I thought it might be nice to write Tolkien a letter.
The idea of a lost saga really appealed to me and I wondered who would kill to get that. I know, but I'm not telling you."
What is that attracted you the Icelandic people?
"Iceland certainly is a distinctive place. The people are a hard-working, manic lot with a highly developed sense of humour, big on irony. Iceland is an extreme mixture of the old and the new - everyone is technologically savvy with Facebook pages, but they believe in folk tales, mythology and elves."
What drew you to the landscape?
"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. And 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."
What were your impressions of Iceland?
"The landscape is extraordinary, otherworldly. The countryside looks bleak, stark, and ancient with the ice fields, fjords and volcanoes. But it only looks
that way because it's new - a work in progress.
The geology underneath the rolling fields and English countryside fields is much, much older, but you wouldn't know it."
How do the traditional Icelandic Sagas influence the novel?
"I wanted something really big, something that would resonate well beyond Iceland. An answer came quickly: Lord of The Rings.
I didn't know much about Tolkien, but I thought it plausible that he had an interest in the sagas.
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.
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."
How was Wexas able to help you with your travel plans?
"The first time I visited Iceland was before the financial collapse. Every time I have gone Wexas has got me great deals and helped with ideas on itineraries, car hire, even which roads will be passable or not, which is very important for me because I don't have two days to wait for a snow drift to clear. I only visit for three to four days at a time, so that kind of expertise and knowledge is crucial for me."
How long have you been a member of Wexas?
"I've been a member for about 10 years and I organise most of my travel with them, especially anything that involves a less than straightforward itinerary or a wrinkle of any kind. Whenever my daughters decide they want to leave a family holiday halfway through, Wexas is always able to organise the arrangement for me.
All of my travel is with Wexas ... anything involving slight wrinkles or tricky schedules they can take care of. It might cost slightly more (not by much though) - but is it certainly worth it.
When things go wrong or get complicated they are always able to sort it and are great for that."
Where else do you travel with Wexas?
"I once wrote a book (See no Evil) part of which was based in South Africa and I needed to find a small game reserve where someone could conveniently be killed. Wexas gave me the perfect location in Ngala Game reserve and though it perfect to be taking a great safari in a great park while researching my book.
So Wexas have helped me on many occasions to bring my books alive with their great recommendations."
What about the next book in the series?
"66 north, the next book in the series is loosely based around the Iceland's' recent financial collapse. A group of people who are angry about the situation decide to take their revenge. My publisher though it was great, but asked me to bring some history and myth into it. I did some research and came up with the Snaefell Peninsula, which was the setting of another saga. I contacted Wexas and they put together a brilliant itinerary in the area to allow me to conduct my research.
The setting was the Berserk Lava Field - and the story goes that a farmer gets these slave girls from Sweden, but one of them falls in love with his son and she asks to marry him. The father says he would allow it, but only if the slave could cut a path through the lava field. She managed to do it, but afterwards the father killed both the slaves. So today you have this wonderful place where there is a path through the lava field and the farmhouse that was mentioned in the saga, but nothing else - it was an amazing experience."
What about the rest of the series?
"I'll carry on with this series for as long as I can, but no more than ten books. I would quite like to travel to the Faroe Islands, so perhaps there will be a murder there that Magnus needs to investigate - you never know?"
The first novel in the series, Where The Shadows Lie, was published in hardback on 01 June 2010 and in paperback in February 2011. The second, entitled 66 North, on 01 May 2011.
Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath is published by Corvus (RRP £7.99)