Wednesday, 21 February 2018

'Short and Sweet' interview with Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Rotorua Noir will be your first visit to New Zealand. Tell us what you know about New Zealand and what you’re expecting to see and experience while you’re here.

Well, the first thing I think about when I think of New Zealand is of course my friend Grant Nicol :) He is the first Kiwi I really got to know and I have to say the man sparked my interest in visiting the country. If all New Zealanders are as lovely and talented as he is I might move there.
Another thing I think about is that it was a surprise for me to learn that the country was not named after Sjælland in Denmark (we Icelanders tend to think everything is named after Denmark, our former colonial masters) but after a place in Holland. I have of course seen photos of the amazing natural beauty and the very varied fauna and flora, tropical north and penguins in the south and all that. But I also heard that you launch a lot of rockets into space....what’s that all about?

You’ve been to quite a number of crime writing festivals all around the world. How are you expecting Rotorua Noir to be different to the other ones you’ve been to so far?

Well, my hopes are that I will get to hear New Zealand authors speak about their books. And I expect them all to be as friendly as Grant Nicol. I really expect the festival to be a friendly festival, not so very unlike Iceland Noir. I like festivals where you can get to know the other authors, engage in conversation with the readers and have many coffee-chats with different people. I hope it will be like that.

The weather in Rotorua during January will be very different to your country in the grips of winter. What steps are you going to take to combat the heat and humidity?

I will take a paracetamol in the morning to lower my body heat slightly and drink the water at room temperature. I was partly raised in Mexico so I have some tricks up my sleeve. One of them is to eat a lot of chillis. They seem to work for me in heat.

Along with being a playwright and crime novelist you also divide your time with some other very important duties. I have it on good authority that you are responsible for the quality control of all pies, pickles, sauces and condiments that are brought in from the UK to Iceland. Primarily pork pies and certain brown sauces that go very well with them. Along the way you have picked up the nickname the ‘Icelandic Minister for Food’. A role where you have been critical in the past of some of Iceland’s more traditional foods. 

Yes, I am a foodie. I love to cook and eat and talk about food, therefore my very respectable title amongst friends. (‘Minister for Food’). After having lived in many countries I tend to miss certain delicacies from them and go out of my way to get my hands (and mouth) on them. But regarding Icelandic delicacies...hmmm. We have a very mixed tradition of food here. First of all we have a very old tradition dating back to the Viking age and most of that food is rather.... shall we say... interesting. At that time people were desperate to preserve food for our long winters, as we did not have any salt because we didn’t have any firewood to boil sea water, we leaned on more traditional ways of preserving meat. This food is rather sour in taste and I do like it as I was raised on it, but for the younger generation of Icelanders and foreigners I guess it is not really considered food. We have a number of traditional ways of preserving food such as smoking, curing and even rotting it.
The other culinary tradition we have is Danish in origin and the Danish make lovely food as they learned most of what they know from the French. Most of our baking derives from Denmark as we did not really have any wheat here before the Danish rule.

My imaginary scenario revolves around these two extra-curricular activities of yours. Imagine two people you know are visiting you from the UK on separate days. The first person you like very much and want them to feel as at home as possible while they’re in Iceland. The second person you can’t stand and as far as you’re concerned you never want them to return to the country.

For the first person you make them a cup of Earl Grey tea to hand them as they walk through the door. What else do you bring them out of your personal stash of goodies from London to serve with their cup of tea?

I would serve them a slice of English pork pie to go with their tea. But I would also serve this person something nice and traditionally Icelandic, as we do - although the horror stories might not suggest it - have some lovely Icelandic food. How about a roast leg of lamb, some smoked trout as a starter and skyr with cream as dessert?

And for the second person, what traditional Icelandic dish do you make them to ensure they spend the rest of the afternoon on the toilet and never return to Reykjavík?

How about a burnt face of lamb, served on the skull, with some pickled ram testicles and maybe a little rotten shark? No? Really? You don’t even want to taste it?

No, Lilja… we don’t want to taste it. Thanks for asking though!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Two Girls On A Train

Somewhere between the cities of Hull and London (Grantham perhaps?), on a train, the idea for Rotorua Noir was born. Two good friends of mine (who shall remain blonde, Nordic and nameless – for the time being at least) starting chatting to each other about the possibility of a crime writers festival in New Zealand. As I was well over 11,000 miles away at the time I can only guess as to why this topic of conversation came up but that’s exactly what I’m going to have a crack at right now. You see, I had just returned home after a disastrous relationship and I suspect it may well have had something to do with that. One of these fine ladies knew that I had found myself at something of a loose end back here in New Zealand and she had guessed (very correctly) that I needed something to keep myself occupied. And she’d have been right. I was in dire need of something to do to take my mind off things.

So when she finally got home she got in touch with me and told me about their idea. The idea that was born on a train. First of all I thought it to be nothing more than a rather flimsy flight of fancy but the more I thought about it the more it appealed to me. Why shouldn’t we have a festival of our own? I had attended a few in the UK while I’d been living there and even helped organise one while I’d been living in Iceland. I knew how they worked and people loved them. They’re a great way of getting writers and readers together and that always has to be a good thing. It’s hard to think of a more disconnected job than writing books and the need for authors to get out there and meet their fans is a very real one. On top of that I had seen the visibility of Kiwi crime writers swell significantly over the last few years. Thanks mainly to the publicity they were getting through the work of Craig Sisterson and his Ngaio Marsh Award. I had met Craig in Reykjavik at Iceland Noir and knew that he was the man to help me see this through. He was the first person to ever write anything about me – on his Crimewatch blog – and I knew that that piece of exposure had led to many more. And I also knew that I couldn’t possibly be alone in feeling this debt of gratitude to him.
Surely other Kiwi crime writers would feel the same way. It was time to find out one way or another.

So I dusted off my old Facebook page which I’d happily mothballed over two years ago and got to work figuring out how many crime writers we had in New Zealand. It was a laboured and rather awkward job at first and I’m still not sure I know exactly how many there are – but after talking to Craig in great depth about this it appears I am not alone in this – but at least I was able to put something of a list together and find most of these wonderful people out there in cyber land. After that it was just a matter of testing the waters and seeing who might be interested in coming to Rotorua in a year’s time to meet everybody else. As it turned out pretty much everyone I contacted was keen to do just that and so the idea first conceived of by two girls on a train somewhere just outside of Grantham (I like to amuse myself) took root in the volcanic soil on the shores of Lake Rotorua and I now find myself about to put tickets on sale for the first ever crime writers festival to be held anywhere in Australasia. Yes, that’s right, we’ve got another one over on the Aussies which is just the icing on the cake really.

The festival will be held at the home of a local theatre company here in Rotorua. The Shambles Theatre was formed in 1951 and puts on three major productions a year. Rotorua Noir will be held during a short break in their rehearsal time on the 26th and 27th of January 2019. There will be two days of panels and interviews at the Shambles as well as a day of workshops at a different venue held by Kiwi crime writer, radio host and TV presenter Vanda Symon. The idea of the workshops is to engage aspiring writers and to encourage the next generation of novelists in New Zealand to learn their craft. To that end we will also be running the Rotorua Noir Short Story Competition. Entries will open next week and will close on October 31st. The stories should be set in or around Rotorua and in keeping with the theme of the festival they should be of a dark or vaguely menacing nature. Or even extremely menacing if you like. They should also be no longer than 10,000 words long. The winner will be announced in December and will win a free pass to the festival, access to Vanda’s workshops and the opportunity to read from their work on stage at the festival.

Details on how to enter the competition will be on the Rotorua Noir website which will be up and running next week along with a link to take you to the ticketing site where tickets for the festival will go on sale March 1st.

As far as who you might get to see at Rotorua Noir, well, as well as the two mystery girls on a train who are definitely coming because it’s basically their festival, we’ve already had two other international writers agree to appear for us. One Scot and one Australian. We’re going to keep their identities under our hats for just a little but longer though but you’re going to love them. That’s one thing I am happy to tell you right now.

Interest in attending the festival has not been limited to New Zealand either or to just authors. Fans of the genre from Australia, America and the UK have already been in touch to let me know that they will be scooping up tickets as soon as they go on sale.
So it seems that from darkness great things can indeed grow. With a little help from a couple of girls on a train. I’m starting to feel like a certain Ray Kinsella staring at what was once an Iowa cornfield slowly becoming more convinced that if I build it they will in fact come.

Rotorua Noir – January 26th and 27th 2019 – Shambles Theatre Rotorua – Two days of awesome panels and interviews – One day of inspirational workshops – Four international guests of honour and a whole bunch of Kiwi and Australian authors – Two girls no longer on a train.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Adventures of a Kiwi crime writer at Dekkarit Festival 2017.

Varkaus is a picturesque little town roughly 300km north-east of where I live in Porvoo. It has a population of just over 20,000 people and has been built entirely around a huge and strangely beautiful paper mill of Gotham City type proportions. It is also the venue for Finland’s hippest up-and-coming crime fiction festival. It is a celebration of art, writing, true crime, music and all things mysterious. Dekkarit Festival, it has to be said, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of recent times for me.

I was invited to appear at this year’s event after one of my Finnish crime writing colleagues suggested me to the organisers. I accepted the invitation without hesitation and also without knowing too much about the festival. A little research into it led me to believe that it would be something of an interesting and varied event that would embrace many different aspects of the genre and that’s exactly what it was.

All too often crime writing festivals are nothing more than panel after panel of writers answering questions from a moderator and nothing else. While there is nothing wrong with listening to authors talk about their craft, after a while, it becomes a little dull. In my opinion anyway. I’ve always thought that mixing up the events at festivals such as these was the key to keeping them interesting. Sitting in a series of hotel meeting rooms for a couple of days leaves a little to be desired when it comes to delivering any sort of excitement factor. Dekkarit Festival certainly did not fall into that trap.

While the bulk of the action takes place at the Old Clubhouse there was certainly plenty happening elsewhere. Friday lunchtime we all packed into Teemu’s minivan and headed fifty kilometres into the countryside to Heinävesi to visit the swamp graves of Eine Nyyssönen and Riitta Pakkanen who were murdered at the Tulilahti campsite in 1959. The spot where their bodies were found is marked with two simple wooden crosses. As the years pass and the crosses are worn away by the elements they are replaced by a mysterious benefactor.

No one knows who the mystery guardian of the girls’ graves is but there is no shortage of mysteries when it comes to this case. The girls camped at the nearby and now defunct Tulilahti campsite but were buried some distance from the campsite in wet marshy ground. Easier to dig into perhaps. Next to where the makeshift graves were discovered lies the submerged remains of a small wooden boat. The boat was used by the killer (or killers) to row the girls’ bicycles out into the middle of the lake and dump them. When they were eventually found and pulled to the surface following several searches (the killer knew exactly where the deepest part of the lake was) it was discovered that the air had been let out of the bicycles’ tyres to help them sink.

 Although the person or persons responsible for the killings has never been found plenty of theories still exist as to his identity even after 58 years. Erik Runar Holmström was charged with the girls’ murders but protested his innocence all the way through his trial and even in the suicide note he left behind after hanging himself with a homemade noose while in custody. Many people doubted his guilt because of the distance the bodies would have had to have been moved from where they were killed at the campsite to where they were buried. Erik Runar Holmström was a short slightly built man and many thought him incapable of getting the bodies across the treacherous ground to their resting place. I’ve walked the distance involved and the killer was either a large well-built man or there were two of them. The distance is considerable and the terrain is uneven and tricky even when you’re not weighed down with a corpse.

Another suspect who was hardly talked about at the time was a German man by the name of Hans Assman. He was also implicated in the Lake Bodom murders a year later in 1960 as well as the Kyllikki Saari murder in 1953. There are similarities between the Heinävesi murders and the Kyllikki Saari murder in that both gravesites were marked by a sharpened branch being driven into the ground to mark the location of the secret graves.

Members of the search party in the Heinävesi murders were even told to look for such a branch. Assman was never formerly investigated for the Kyllikki Saari murder although it was thought at the time that he and his driver ran her over in their car before burying her body in a bog and dumping her bicycle in a nearby swamp. Assman was working for the KGB at the time and no one in the Finnish government had the stomach for upsetting their Soviet counterparts. Years later Assman hinted on his deathbed that he may have been involved.

"One thing however, I can tell you right away ... because it is the oldest one, and in a way it was an accident, that had to be covered up. Otherwise, our trip would have been revealed. Even though my friend was a good driver, the accident was unavoidable. I assume you know what I mean," he said.
Broken glass was found on the road near where she disappeared and a light-brown Opel similar to the one Assman owned was seen nearby by several witnesses. Assman’s wife reported that he came home with wet shoes and a sock missing and that several days later Assman and his driver left again. This time with a shovel.

No one has ever been convicted of the Heinävesi murders, nor the Kyllikki Saari murder nor the murders at Lake Bodom. In a land with 188,000 lakes it makes you wonder just how many bodies might still be out there. With that thought lodged firmly in our heads we headed back to the van. On the way back to Varkaus we stopped to climb an observation tower and take some photos of the wonderful scenery. We also took some time out to light a campfire and make coffee and cook sausages over the open flames. Chasing the ghosts of murdered girls had never been so much fun.
Back at the clubhouse there was a discussion panel on the Tulilahti murders and who might have committed them followed by a drive-in movie in the local car park.

At this point in time it can be confirmed that no arrests have been made in the Tulilahti inquiry and that the case remains open and unsolved despite the best efforts of everyone who joined us for sausages and coffee.

Saturday consisted of panel discussions in the clubhouse on such subjects as adapting crime fiction to the screen, historical crime novels and how crime books are born. I had a great conversation with the winner of the ‘Best Crime Book of the Year’ award Christian Rönnbacka about how he puts his books together. He comes up with a title first and then sends it to his graphic artist in Berlin who designs a cover for him that he feels will suit the title he has been given. When Christian receives the cover back he then sets about using that image to build the story in his head and works from there. Many writers, myself included I must confess, would look at that process and say that he is doing everything completely backwards. But as the saying goes there are many ways up the mountain and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is that you get to the top.

At the dinner Christian was awarded his prize for ‘Best Crime Book of the Year’, a beautiful handmade drum from local artists Taikalaakso. This was not the only piece of art present at the festival. The walls of the clubhouse were lined with paintings by local artists all with some sort of dark or criminal leaning. I was interviewed in front of the assembled dinner guests about my journey from growing up in New Zealand to writing crime fiction in Finland via Australia, Northern Ireland and Iceland and my latest book ‘Out On The Ice’ then shortly after signing a few books I was interviewed again by Yle the national Finnish TV channel for a forthcoming culture show called ‘Egenland’. The rest of the night was spent wrestling booze out of a 19th century moonshine cellar and drinking with guests, locals and fellow writers at a local ‘speakeasy’. By the end of it all it was impossible not to have fallen in love with this arty, eccentric and adventurous festival.

A camping hut for the use of forest walkers in the Heinävesi area.

Discussion on the Tulilahti murders at the site of the swamp graves where the two girls were found.

And again talk turned to the possible suspects at the site of what was once the Tulilahti campsite.

Preparations for coffee and sausages after the perilous walk to the swamp graves.

Dekkarit Festival will be happening again on the last weekend of July in 2018 at the Old Clubhouse in Varkaus, Finland. The programme (in English) for this year's festival can be viewed here: 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Read the first paragraphs of 'Out On The Ice' here.

The first paragraphs of 'Out On The Ice' are here to celebrate one week until it's release.

The book can be pre-ordered now: and will sent to you next Friday.

Get a taste of the story of Sóley and her troubled life now.

“Don’t go out on the ice,” was the first thing Gísli said to me when he saw little Jakob out on that frozen lake. That was twenty years ago now. It was the first thing he’d said to me all day I actually listened to and it is the last thing I remember him ever saying to me. I know there were other words spoken or screamed across the ice as I tried to get the two of them to come back to me. Back where they belonged, safe and sound in my arms. But it is that particular line that has stuck in my head over the passage of the years and I hear it again every time I look at my beautiful boy who has now become a man. And wonder what might have been.

Tears don’t spill from my eyes any more. They lie in wait to ambush me when they know I no longer have the strength to fight back. When I’m looking for something I should be able to say but can’t. When the words choke in my throat when they no longer have anywhere else left to go. When I remember something I once heard him say or thought he might have whispered to me on a cold night long ago. When I think of something I wanted or needed him to say, and still need now. More than ever. Then they come. And like the last thing you have left to hold onto, you let them come. Because it’s that or it’s nothing. And that makes me want him even more. More than I ever thought possible. More than I ever cared to admit.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

My review of 'Since We Fell' by Dennis Lehane.

It’s been some time since I’ve reviewed a book. Well over a year in fact but I felt that it was time to pay tribute to one of my favourite authors to celebrate the release of his latest book. Well overdue in fact. The author in question is Dennis Lehane and the book in question is ‘Since We Fell’.

‘Since We Fell’ tells the story of Rachel who starts off my shooting her husband on his boat and watching him fall into Boston harbour. At this point we know very little about Rachel we don’t in fact even know who the husband she has just shot is. As it turns out she gets married twice. We then jump back in time to Rachel’s childhood where the tale of her search for her father begins. He disappeared when she was only three years old and her recollections of him are limited to his hair, his smile and the fact that he smelled of coffee and corduroy. Receiving no help whatsoever from her mother, quite the opposite in fact, she struggles to find him. She can’t even get his name out of her so when Mom is killed in a traffic accident with a fuel truck she is stuck in a form of emotional limbo. She has no way to track her father down and yet must find him in order to find any sort of peace in her life. Her odd and manipulative mother Elizabeth kept his name and whereabouts from her despite her pleading with her to tell her who he was and how she could get hold of him. As it turns out Elizabeth’s motives for keeping her daughter in the dark are as messed up and self-centred as you’re ever likely to find. It would seem that Mom, who was the author of best-selling series of books on marriage, had more than just a few bats loose in the attic.

Rachel plods on with her life as best she can but the identity of her father continues to haunt her every move. She even enlists the services of a private investigator to track him down but the plot only thickens with each stone that she turns over. Needless to say she is unable to let go of her search and it dominates and complicates every facet of the rest of her life.

The men in her life, besides her long lost father, are a strange bunch to say the least. There is the guy she tracks down thinking and hoping that he was her father but isn’t. The guy who reminds her of her mother who she marries who turns out to be just like her mother only worse. The guy who probably was her father but she could never be sure because died before she could meet him and the guy who reminded her of how she imagined her father to be so she marries him and who then turns out to be someone completely different but by then it’s too late. It’s a complicated life full of emptiness, endless searches, on-air breakdowns and therapy sessions.

“I hate you. I love you. I’ll miss you for the rest of my fucking life,” she says at one point.

‘Since We Fell’ is a change of pace again from Lehane who started off with a private investigator team series and then moved on to a couple of standalone books and then another series set in the 20s. Some of the dialogue in the book sizzles. My favourite conversation being between Rachel and Detective Kessler who is trying to put her and her husband in jail which as it turns out is probably as good a place as any for them to be. For their sakes as well as our own.

“I’ve been on some fucked-up cases, if you’ll excuse my language, but this is one of the more fucked-up ones I been on of late. I got a dead blonde in Rhody, a missing guy leading a double life, his lying wife –”

“I’m not lying.”

“Oh ho!” He wagged a finger at her. “Yes yes yes you are, Mrs Delacroix. You’re telling me so many lies I can’t even count them. And your neighbour there, the married guy in the Members Only jacket and the JCPenny slacks without the wedding ring? Guys like him don’t live in buildings like yours. He didn’t even know where the fucking garage was, and the doorman had clearly never seen him before.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“Lucky I’m a cop. They fucking pay us to notice shit like that.”

Tarantino would have been proud of that effort.

Over the last twenty-three years Lehane has amassed an impressive back catalogue with thirteen novels and a collection of short stories. Six of his books make up the ‘Kenzie – Gennaro’ series that he started off with and then there’s three books from the ‘Coughlin’ series as well as a collection of short stories and four standalone books of which ‘Since We Fell’ is the fourth.

The ‘Kenzie – Gennaro’ books are the ones that put Lehane on the map and run from his impressive debut ‘A Drink Before The War’ in 1994 through to ‘Prayers For Rain’ in 1999. Eleven years later he revisited the duo of private investigators in ‘Moonlight Mile’ after writing a couple of blockbusting standalones (‘Mystic River’ and ‘Shutter Island’ – both of which were turned into outstanding movies my Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese respectively).

It was the fourth book in the ‘Kenzie – Gennaro’ series that caught my eye, literally. As so often happens with me I discovered this author through a film adaptation of one of his books. This is how I’ve made some of my most endearing discoveries in literature over the years. Other authors I’ve found this way include Jim Thompson and Henning Mankell. ‘Gone, Baby Gone’ was made into a film in 2007 by Ben Affleck and made such an impression that I was forced to search out the author of such a great story and start reading his books.

For me though it is his two standalone novels ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Shutter Island’ that really stole the show though. ‘Mystic River’ in particular is one of the great American crime novels and is as good a place as any to start discovering the magic of Dennis Lehane and discover it you should. He has developed into an author who can now be mentioned in the same breath as Ellroy and that ladies and gentlemen is no mean feat whatsoever.

“We are not special. We are lit from within by a single candle flame, and when that flame is blown out and all light leaves our eyes, it is the same as if we never existed at all. We don’t own our life, we rent it.”