Val McDermid and Sue Black : Forensics

Thursday 6 November 2014, Val McDermid and Sue Black : Forensics


An event put on by Blackwell’s Bookshop and the Surgeons’ Hall Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh, featuring best-selling author Val McDermid and forensic anthropologist Sue Black.

Val McDermid is a best-selling crime writer, most famous for her Dr Tony Hill series, which was adapted for TV as ‘Wire in the Blood’.  Val has now written a fascinating  book on forensics entitled “The Anatomy of Crime”, which is the main reason for tonight’s event.  She has recently become a director of Raith Rovers Football Club and you do wonder how she has time to do anything with all the different pies she has her fingers in.

Professor Sue Black is one of the UK’s leading forensic anthropologists, and is director of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. She teaches forensic anthropology, anatomy and human identification, and has recently been appointed as Deputy Principal for Public Engagement.

Prof Black is no stranger to the media, and has been on the BBC’s History Cold Case, a series of programmes in which she and her team used forensic science to shed light on the past. She’s also authored 9 text books, has 28 chapters in other textbooks, and 93 published papers. The event takes place in a beautiful lecture theatre which was part of the Royal College of Surgeons.

McDermid and Professor Black have known each other for 20 years and this is the second time we have seen them do their double act after seeing them at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2012.  It was on a radio show the year before Wire in the Blood hit the TV screens that Sue made the fatal mistake of trying to be very polite to this crime writer and offered to help her if she ever had any questions. Twenty years on and she is still helping Val with the facts around the 104 undetectable ways to kill someone.  Val says that it’s great to be able to call on an expert who you can trust and who doesn’t make you feel like an idiot.


We are then treated to a rather gruesome tale where Val explains that for one of her books she wanted to find out from Sue what jars of pubic scalps stored in formaldehyde would look like, to which Sue had replied, “just imagine a tuna steak with hair!”

The conversation then turns quite serious as we are told by Val about her admiration for the important and significant work that Sue does abroad, in bringing the dead home.  She has worked in many countries such as Kosovo, Iraq and Syria, where she has had to deal with terrible situations.  However her work helps to bring closure to people who have lost everything.  Quite modestly, Sue replies that she and her colleagues are just doing their job, the same job, just in slightly different places and it’s not about deciding if someone is guilty or is to blame. Sue also talks about the challenge of making the science simple and uncomplicated because she needs to get the information over to the public in court scenarios.   She adds that one of the reasons she likes talking with Val about what would work and what doesn’t, is because of Val’s enormous respect for her readers.  Val thinks this comes from her journalistic background, which allowed her to be “legitimately nosy”.

We are then treated to a bit of the friendly banter between them with Val saying that Sue has never put the phone down on her yet, and Sue retorting that Val has never bought her a drink yet.. They discuss how they can empty coffee shops with unguarded conversations about how much blood would splatter out if someone cut a victims throat and how you could get it to arc across the room – best way would be for the victim to have indulged in some rigorous activity (e.g. rampant sex, which means they “can’t be married”!) Val is especially proud of having emptied a hotel lounge by talking about embalming one night.

They remind us of the story which grew out of Sue mentioning to Val one day how tattoo ink can collect in the lymph nodes so even if someone is found with no arms, you can tell whether they’ve had tattoos and the colour of the ink used. See previous blog for more info on this. Turning to the book, Val tells us it’s been 20 years since she last wrote a non-fiction book and it will be another 20 before she writes another one.  The reason why she wrote this one is documented in a previous blog, but essentially she was asked by the Welcome Trust to write something to coincide with the re-opening of a big exhibition on forensics. She says it’s really difficult to write non-fiction – if she gets stuck with something in her fictional books she can just “make shit up” but you can’t do that when you need to be factual.  However, she really enjoyed learning about entomology and was fascinated by all the information you can obtain just by studying bugs and their various life cycles as they congregate on a dead body.

She also said she enjoyed meeting new people, including Martin Hall from the Natural History Museum. Martin regaled a number of stories as to how bugs had helped solve murders, and also showed an area where they had been storing suitcases which contained pigs heads, so they could work out which types of fly could lay their eggs through the zips. She was extremely impressed with the planning process for this, what they needed to know, how would they find that out and what were they he going to do with the information.

We were then introduced to a third person, sitting in the audience – Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, described as the Walter White of Dundee University, as she apparently has a cupboard full of crystal meth – the deal being that if the police seize a particular drug, but don’t know how it was made or indeed what’s in it, then the research will help find that out.  Niamh talked about her PhD students running round Glasgow when she was at the University of Strathclyde and buying up as much Sudafed as they could get and by the end of the year she had a pretty good stockpile!

Val talked about how reality is often stranger than fiction, so the way she decides on whether to put something in a book is often if something makes her go, “I didn’t know that,” and then, “what if this happened instead of that.”  She also says that she will often not write anything down – if she doesn’t remember it, then how would that make a good story.

In Val’s book Skeleton Road, her two female characters are based on Sue, and the Philosophy Dean at Oxford who worked behind the Iron Curtain running secret science seminars in the back rooms of pubs – she got rumbled and barred from going to the Soviet Union.  She (I think Val referred to her as Kathy) worked in Dubrovnik when the siege began in 1991.  She wrote letters about the siege and smuggled them out.  She then drove an ambulance across Europe to raise money, became an honorary general in the army and she has a square named after her in Dubrovnik itself.  She told Val all about her life during the siege and Val stored it away to use in a future story, alongside the experiences of Sue in Kosovo.  It wasn’t until Val heard about some free climbers climbing the outside of the Cambridge Colleges that she came up with the plot around what if hey had got up there and discovered a skeleton that shouldn’t be there (as opposed to one that should – interjects Sue!)

Questions were then invited from the audience and topics covered included whether the change to double jeopardy had put lots of pressure on resources (no, but the proposed change to the law on corroboration would cause an issue).

Val highlighted that the following day would be the 40th anniversary of the disappearance of Lord Lucan and how DNA could now be used to help prove whether there had indeed been a struggle with another man.  Sue talked about how the shoe rapist (he took a stiletto shoe as a trophy) had been caught when a lady was charged with a road traffic offence and her DNA proved a partial march to that which had been recovered from the scenes of the rapes.  Her brother was the rapist and when his home was searched, police found a cupboard full of stiletto shoes.


That led into a discussion about the back of everyone’s hands are unique as are men’s penises.  In fact, there has been a request for men to post pictures of their bits on to a website called so that research can be carried out into the various shapes and sizes which can ultimately help to catch child molesters whose hands and penises are often included in the pictures they take of the abuse they carry out. This subject caused a lot of hilarity in the room, but came with a very serious message.   Sue added that her student who was involved in setting up the website still hadn’t confessed to her mother about her study project.

The final question was about how entertaining Val and Sue are as a double act and how could we get teachers to be so entertaining to grab pupils’ imaginations.  Sue thought that the majority of teachers did have that passion and it was just that they were frustrated and ground down by the bureaucracy surrounding their jobs. She thought that engaging girls in science subjects after second year was also a big challenge.

After the event a quick word with Val about Kirkcaldy led to her saying “not you again” which shows that I at least have made an impression on previous meetings!

An entertaining evening and I’d certainly recommend that you go and see these two together if you get the chance.  Just try not to sit near them in a coffee shop.

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Il capitale unamo (Human Capital) – film review

Another trip to the Filmhouse in Edinburgh and this time there are 35 of us there for the screening of Il capitale unamo, based on the American novel Human Capital by Stephen Amidon.


The book was set in Connecticut, but we have been transferred to Northern Italy for this Italian film by Paolo Virzi. It’s quite a departure from his usual style of comedy and this thriller certainly isn’t a film full of laughs.

The film begins with the aftermath of a party and the opening sequence is beautifully shot with the camera coming down from above showing a ballroom with empty glasses and tickertape everywhere and the waiting staff clearing up. We see one of the waiters depart on his bike and he is subsequently knocked over by a car which doesn’t stop.

The story is told from the events leading up to this event and is done so in four interweaving chapters. Three from the perspective of 3 of the main characters and then a final one to tie up the loose ends and reach the denouement.

The first chapter is from the perspective of local estate agent Dino Ossola, played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio. Bentivoglio is a multi- award winning actor with a raft of acting credits.


The second chapter is from the viewpoint of Dino’s daughter, Serena, played by Matilde Gioli in her first film role.


Rich socialite Carla, played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi features as the star of the third chapter. She is the older sister of Carla Bruni Sarkozy and has had many acting roles.  She has been in the excellent 2005 film Munich and has also featured in the TV programme In Treatment.


Serena has been dating Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli, another newcomer) son of Carla’s and her husband Giovanni (played by Fabrizio Gifuni, a popular actor in Italy who featured in Hannibal in 2001). Giovanni is a hedge fund manager who has little time for those who cannot further his lifestyle.

Dino’s wife Roberta, a psychiatrist is pregnant with twins (why she would let him anywhere near her is beyond me). Valeria Golino plays Roberta. She has come far since being the eye candy in such 1990s films such as Hot Shots and Clean Slate. She also featured in Rain Man. Interestingly, Valeria was engaged to Fabrizio Bentivoglio between 1993 and 2001. One of Roberta’s patients, Luca (played by Giovanni Anzaldo) is the other main cast member. He is receiving counselling following being accused of drug possession.


As the story unfolds, Dino sees the opportunity to get rich by investing money he doesn’t have in one of Giovanni’s schemes. The characters’ stories develop to show their roles in the build up to the accident which began the film.  It’s essentially a murder mystery, but there is a commentary on the spoiled lives of those with money and the greed involved in many of the participants.

The timeline is repeated in the different chapters, each time the audience are learning more about the protagonists and the story, sometimes briefly the same scene from different camera angles. It’s not repetitive though and is done in a very engaging way.  There’s a nod to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it’s done in a stylish and clever way.


Disaster inevitably befalls Dino’s investment and all the characters’ lives slowly begin to unravel. Dino almost seems akin to the comedic role that features in Bollywood films.  His sense of style and personality don’t seem to fit with anyone else in the film and it’s hard to believe this obnoxious fellow is married to Roberta.  Gifuni’s Giovanni is too cold and calculating for me and seems entirely devoid of personality, which makes his part in convincing investors seem unlikely. Giovanni Anzaldo is impressive as the troubled Luca, but it’s the women who make this film. Bruni Tedeschi is superb as the clinically depressed Carla.  Golino will banish memories of those aforementioned 90s films and the stunning Gioli has everything going for her with her looks and acting ability.  All of the women are put upon, but they play the parts very well.

It’s undoubtedly slick and is the official submission of Italy for the best foreign language film category of the 87th Academy Awards 2015. Capitalist greed seems to the main feature, as well as social inequality and the story keeps you guessing, although it doesn’t quite grab me the way it should have over its (almost) 2 hours.Human1

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Sing in the City IV – Should Sean Connery pronounce “City”?

Sing in the City IV, Portobello Town Hall, Saturday 4 October 2014

It seems as if any semblance of a rock ‘n roll lifestyle I might have hoped for has departed as I find myself on a Saturday evening at Portobello Town Hall, to watch and listen to an amateur choir. Where did it all go wrong?  I wondered if this is what I would be asking of the choir at the end.


Four and a half years ago, singer/songwriter Kirsty Baird began Sing in the City.  Working as a voice coach for the Council, she realised that there was a desire for something more structured and started up her first choir.  The focus is very much on modern music and there is a wide age range, so the songs are both old and new.  What started out as one choir is now 7, with different ones all around Edinburgh, including the Aw Blacks, who are the only ones which involve an audition.  Plans are afoot to expand further afield including in Midlothian and Fife and business appears to be booming.

So what brings me here? Well like the vast majority of the crowd, I know one of the performers.  I won’t embarrass them further by naming them here (I’ve been doing it on a daily basis since Saturday).

After doing my more standard fair in the afternoon and watching some football, we arrive early at Portobello Town Hall and manage to park right in front of it. A quick look around for food options prompts us to go to the local chippy and take it back to the car, where we watch the queue begin to form.  I’m amazed at the size it has reached by the time the doors open.  The hall seats 600, and it must be about four fifths full from what I can see.


This is the second live outing for Sing in the City IV, known as the “Crazy Corries”, due to their base being in Corstorphine and I assume, them being a little on the peculiar side.  (I can certainly vouch for this based on the little experience I have of its members).

It does seem slightly odd that a Corstorphine choir is performing in Portobello. Whether the availability of a suitable venue nearer to the members’ homes is problematic I don’t know, but I’d imagine many of the singers’ friends and families would live in a similar area.  It may, of course, be that they obtain a good rate for the use of the town hall, or even that it is quite close to where Kirsty lives?

The band are on stage first which consist of Annette Hanley, Vocalist, Acoustic & Electric Guitar – Michael Cameron, Drums – Ray Kwiecinski, Bass Guitar – Jules Vaughn, Lead Guitar, Mhairi O’Neill, Violinist – and also another guitarist. (Kirsty also sometimes plays the keyboards and recorder, although not at the same time).

Kirsty is in her element. She clearly loves being on stage and is very comfortable.  She introduces the choir who come in from a side door and make their way onto the stage from the steps at front right and line themselves up in rows of 12.  This is all well and good, but as there are around 60 in the choir, it goes on for some time, not helped by the unfortunate “Sheena” who is on crutches.  As Kirsty invited us to clap when they first started coming on, the applause has subsided somewhat by the time they are all in place.  Are you not supposed to build to a crescendo?

Each member of the choir is in a brightly coloured Sing in the City t-shirt. The band wear more regular clothes and Kirsty is dressed in all black.  The mix of colours in no apparent semblance of order is a useful reminder that this is an amateur choir, just before they sing for the first time.


They open with the Scottish classic Wild Mountain Thyme (sometimes known as “Purple Heather” and “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”).  Kirsty then has some banter with the crowd. All You Need Is Love is next and despite very mild swaying from side to side by the choir, it’s impossible not to notice the men at the front of the choir on the audience’s right hand side struggling enormously to do this simple task.  It’s incredibly off putting to watch.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain is third.

Although the choir doesn’t generally practice with the band, they come in for a couple of sessions before a live gig. Although the acoustics aren’t too bad in the hall, and there are 60 members on stage, the band often drowns out the singing, especially when parts of the choir are singing different parts of a song and there aren’t so many voices in unison.


Kirsty is then back with the audience and splits it into 3 with each part having to sing a part of a song. This also involves some kids plucked from the crowd standing in front of the sections encouraging them.  One section is to chant “Oops Upside Your Head”, one “Who Let the Dogs Out” and the other “Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Off the Bus”.  It also involves standing up and doing actions.  To me, this was all a bit cringeworthy and went on too long, although I imagine some enjoyed it.

Back to the choir and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind is next to get an airing, followed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, where there are the first obvious mistakes with several members seeming to get the words wrong. Coming to America, the Neil Diamond number is performed next, with the choir split into sections again, with the deeper voices leading.  This suffered a lot from the being drowned out by the band from the seats we were in.

Another break for Kirsty to play with the audience and 2 women were pretty much volunteered onto the stage where Kirsty dressed them in Tutus and had them dancing ballet. I’m sure many (me included) came to laugh at friends, family and colleagues on stage, but it was the crowd who were doing most of the embarrassing things. Again, I felt this went on a bit too long and I can imagine many people refusing to get up on stage having seen what has gone before.  (I should point out that all who contribute are given some kind of gift).


The Skye Boat Song brings us back to what we had all come to see and then what probably worked best out of all the songs they did, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’. This seemed to suit them best.  The first half concludes with The Isley Brothers’ This Ole Heart of Mine. Further delays as the granddaughter of one of the choir is invited to the stage for them performing what we are told is her favourite song.  Of course, she is sitting in the balcony.  And looks absolutely terrified for the duration.

Tea and coffee (as well as Sing in the City and Kirsty merchandise) is on sale.

As people are returning to their seats, Kirsty is singing the Doobie Brothers song Long Train Runnin’.  So you could see this as a bonus performance, or another example of limelight stealing.

We then have “Mix in the City” which features members from some of the other choirs. They perform Lean On Me and then do a medley of Then He Kissed Me/Give It Up/Pretty Woman.  Kirsty then introduces the band as the 60 (slowly) return to the stage.

IV begin this part of the show with U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Kirsty asks the crowd to use their mobile phones like lighters and next up is the Bob Dylan song, which has recently been covered by Adele, Make You Feel My Love.


It’s hard not to laugh when the choir all put their thumbs in their pockets to sing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. Although it didn’t seem possible, the aforementioned blokes are even more out of time when the next song is perfomed.  The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks is done with real gusto and seems to be a particular favourite of many on stage.

Proud Mary is up next, another Creedence Clearwater Revival song, although perhaps made more famous by Tina Turner. This is speeded up as it progresses.  Kirsty has encouraged people to get up and dance and quite a few have circled the seats, but given how well they know the lyrics and actions, it is soon apparent that these are in fact members of other Sing in the City choirs.

We end with a Footloose medley and the actions are coming thick and fast now.  Some of them even in time.


The “City” in Sing in the City seen above looks like it might be Berlin.  In 1939.

While you will hear better singing, it’s clear the choir members enjoy themselves and that is surely the point? It’s far from terrible and when you know someone performing, it certainly adds to the experience.

The drive that has been shown by Ms Baird to establish these choirs is commendable and no little time and effort has been put into getting them up and running. You could probably argue that as their number continues to grow, she is spreading herself thinner and thinner in terms of the time she devotes to each one.  She does like the limelight though.  You can’t help getting the impression that it’s all about her at times.  After the two choirs’ performances at the weekend, at the time of writing this, two videos have been put up on the Sing in the City Facebook page.  They are videos of Kirsty from each night with audience members.  If Kirsty had been in Sister Act 2 instead of Whoopi Goldberg, we would never have heard of Lauryn Hill.


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Crimes of Passion – Tragedy in a Country Churchyard (No Bee Gees)

Crimes of Passion – Episode 6 

Tragedy in a Country Churchyard


The final episode. Will Christer and Puck get together?  Will Eje’s on/off glasses settle on which they want to be?  Will it be Puck who is killing everyone so Christer will come?

First on screen tonight, is someone sneaking into a church and using a key to get into a chest and steal the silver.

It would seem that Puck’s family haven’t been following her recent history of wherever she goes, death follows, as she has been invited home for Christmas. She and Eje are there, in yet another big house, this time the vicarage, showing that Puck has been circulating in appropriate company in previous episodes.  Eje is sans glasses.  Puck’s Uncle Tord is there (who is the local vicar) along with his daughter Lotta, and housekeeper Hjördis. The final attendee is Puck’s father Johannes, who is regaling the throng with tales of his archaeological adventures. Puck’s dad being Indiana Jones explains a lot.

As with last week, you can’t help notice how wonderful the scenery is with the addition of snow. The wintry landscapes really add to the authenticity of the show.

We meet the beautiful blonde Barbara, who is with a man in her room when her husband Arne arrives home and the man quickly climbs out of the window. She is surely the favourite to end up with Christer this week.  Arne, who owns the local grocer’s shop, gives her a pearl necklace for Christmas (no, not like that) and it’s maybe worth pointing out that tradition in Sweden is to open presents on Christmas Eve.


Puck and Eje are wrapping presents and the former is giving her father a copy of the crime novel she has written, with the author on the cover an anagram of her own name.

Barbara enters the vicarage and asks if anyone has seen her husband as he has gone missing. Credits time and I will miss hearing and seeing the opening sequence.

The Puck household go to look for Arne en mass and go to his house with his baker shop next door. Eje, who seems to be flirting a little with Barbara, and Johannes go into the house.  Puck, waiting outside with Lotta is never going to miss out on all the fun and she and Lotta go into the grocer’s shop, where Puck finds Arne lying dead behind the counter.  Although she clearly doesn’t want to scare ten year old Lotta, she doesn’t even react when seeing the body.


So we need someone to investigate. There are clearly local police, but will they do?  Would it not be better to get someone from the murder squad in Stockholm (which seems to consist of one person) to investigate?  Uncle Tord tells Puck at the end of the church service he has given, that someone from Stockholm has arrived from the police.  His name is Christer.  In the most unnecessary line so far, Puck enquires “Wijk?”  Of course it is.  Off she goes to see him, without telling Eje, who is further back in the queue to get out of the church.  He doesn’t look happy when the vicar tells him that’s where she is.

Mother and daughter Tekla and Susanne are members of the church choir, along with pretty much everyone else, including the deceased Arne. Susanne is very much under mother’s thumb and seems too young for Christer, although she’s not a patch on Barbara anyway.

Conny, who was the previous bakery owner and current assistant, enters the story along with his half-brother Marten. The latter was seen in town at the time of the murder so that seems to rule him out.

Barbara wants to get more clothes from her own house and asks Eje to help. Puck says she will help and Christer agrees to go with them.  Amazing how jealous Puck is getting when she has been spending too much time with Christer all through the series!


Barbara, staying at the vicarage, asks Puck to come to her room to zip up her dress. Although she didn’t even have the dress on at that point and Puck doesn’t seem overly comfortable as Babs stands in her bra, knickers and stockings.  (Looked fine to me).  Puck complies when she does finally put the dress on.

Conny admits to Christer that he had gone to the grocers to get more vodka and had discovered Arne’s body. Puck goes back to her traditional snooping and sees Barbara and Marten hugging.

Eje is in Barbara’s room and helps her pick up the pearls from her necklace. In his usual dorky fashion, he manages to bang his head on the bed as he recovers one which has rolled under it.  Babs kisses him on the forehead and he looks like a 12 year old boy who has been kissed for the first time.  As he leaves, Puck sees him coming out of her room.


Puck and Eje are in bed and Puck can’t sleep. She says that she can’t stop thinking about Barbara.  A half asleep Eje says “me neither” and gets punched in the arm.  She asks him if he thinks Barbara is pretty and he lies “no”.  Puck is undoubtedly jealous, forgetting all the flirting she has been doing with Christer in every other episode.

Barbara tells Christer she likes alpha males. To be honest, it looks like she just likes males, and although Christer is having a good look at her, the lack of his pulling tactics coming out means she is either going to die or is the murderer.  There are quite a few suspects.  Everyone in it apart from our usual three and as with every other episode, all who feature have something to hide.  Was 1950s Sweden really this full of liars?

Lotta sees a torch shining in the woods and puts her doll in the bed to make it look as though she is still there and heads outside to investigate. It’s obvious that she is related to Puck even if we didn’t know.  It’s eventually realised that Lotta is missing and they all go and look for her.  They go to the church and in a tactic used in several episodes, don’t turn on the lights and use torches to add to the atmosphere.  They find Lotta tied up and also discover that the stolen silver has reappeared.  She tells everyone that a man had covered up her eyes and a woman had tied her up, but she didn’t see who it was.


Susanne comes to speak to Christer and Puck and says that her mum had killed her dad. He had a burst appendix and Tekla hadn’t got any help until it was too late.  Her dad had told Arne before he died about what Tekla did and Arne had been blackmailing her, which explained where he was getting his money from with his grocery business failing.

Eje tells Christer at breakfast that he is taking Barbara into town and he is just being supportive which Christer laughs heartily at, judging everyone by his own standards. Puck comes down to breakfast and things are decidedly frosty, both indoors and out.   Puck asks Christer to come to the hairdresser with her and inexplicably, he accepts.

Puck overhears Barbara tell her Uncle Tord that she “doesn’t feel that way about him” and her hatred for the strumpet continues to grow. This grows further when she speaks to Barbara who has a new black dress for her husband’s funeral and is told that Eje paid for it.  When Barbara leaves, Puck goes into her room and Eje finds her there and they have a blazing row.  This includes Puck pulling out several black dresses from Barbara’s wardrobe, despite her having said to Eje that she didn’t have one.  Eje is complaining about her always wanting to spend time with Christer and Puck defends herself by saying that someone is dead.  Eje replies that “There’s always someone dead!”  We noticed that too Eje.  They of course kiss and make up.


Puck sees Barbara leave the house and follows her. As she steps outside, she seems to have put on her gloves, hat, coat and scarf on magically.  Lotta follows Puck.  They hear a scream and find Barbara dead with a head injury.

Christer has them all in a room. (I feel we have seen this before somewhere).  Marten admits taking the silver because Barbara had said that he wouldn’t. She put it back but the vicar had caught her.  Susanne had been the look out when he stole it.  As a punishment, vicar Tord says that Marten will be the new usher.  I’m not sure if this is better or worse than going to jail.  Marten realises that Susanne has loved him for a long time and they head off into the sunset on his motorbike.

My interest in whodunit has waned enormously by now, so this may be why I don’t understand why Eje, Christer and Puck suddenly wonder where Hjördis is. As they race to the house they find her with a knife to Lotta’s throat.  It had been Hjördis who had given Arne the money to buy his shop and he was supposed to pay her back on Christmas Eve, so when he refused to do so, she put an axe in his head.  Lotta escapes her clutches and Hjördis tries to jump out of the window but is stopped by Christer and Eje.

Next we are back at the vicar’s house and it is new year. Christer leaves the house and goes off without a woman!!  What’s going on!!!!  (Oh and everyone loved Puck’s novel).

So the 6 episodes are over. A lot of people on twitter seem to have loved this series, but I expect it is unlikely to get another outing after its failure to take off in its homeland.

I’ve found myself pining for the quality Nordic dramas of the past. So much so that I went to the cinema on Sunday to see “In Order of Disappearance” which you can read about elsewhere on this site.

BBC4 has an Australian series up next. I’ll be hoping for better.


  •  uck, Did I see traces of Eje going grey? (Despite his ever improving eyesight).
  • Given her seeming abundance of money, giving her father a copy of a book she had written, which she probably got for free anyway, seemed a bit of a rubbish present from Puck.
  • Puck told Christer that Marten and Barbara were hugging in a romantic way. Didn’t look like that to me!
  • When Lotta explained she had gone outside because of the torch, she referred to “the blinkerer”.
  • Puck and Eje left Barbara’s room in quite a mess with dresses everywhere.
  • One of the books in Lotta’s bedroom was Inte flera mord! by Maria Lang. It was episode 3 of the series.
  • Isn’t it amazing how often doors are unlocked so Puck can snoop?
  • Lots of Nordic Noir knitwear on show in this episode.
  • The word for “hussy” in Swedish sounds remarkably like “slapper”.
  • Was slightly disappointed when I heard the title of this episode that it wasn’t an outside broadcast of a Bee Gees performance.
  • Given her propensity for being around dead bodies, Puck is like a Swedish 1950s version of Kate Adie.


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In Order of Disappearance – Nordic Film Review

In Order of Disappearance

 in order of2

It’s been too long since I’ve had a trip to the wonderful Filmhouse Cinema on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road. It’s an independent cinema showing a wide range of films from all over the world, from restored classics to up to the minute foreign releases and themed festivals, including being the home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Housed in a former church since the move there in 1978, it has three screens, as well as a nice café/bar. Previous trips in recent times have seen me take in Gold, a German Western, a talk from Ingolf Gabold, a composer and the former head of DR, the Danish national broadcaster,  and the screening of the final episodes of Borgen, which included a Q&A with Sidse Babette Knudsen.

This afternoon, I’m here to see In Order of Disappearance, a film by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. Moland had won major awards for his work on commercials before his feature debut in 1993.  He is reunited for this film with good friend and collaborator Stellan Skarsgård, whom he has directed in 3 previous films.

Skarsgård will be known to many for his previous acting credits, maybe not so much for Moland’s films, but for others such as Good Will Hunting, Avengers Assemble and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Here he plays Nils Dickman, an introverted and hardworking mountain road and path clearer from Sweden, working and living in a small town in Norway.  And clear Nils must, because the snow is pretty spectacular, along with the scenery, in another triumph for Nordic cinematography.

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Nils’ hard work on his plough (which can “throw 40 tons of snow per minute”) has contributed to him being awarded Citizen of the Year. Nils doesn’t like attention and doesn’t like that he has to make a speech for this award.  It infringes on his dull but idyllic life with his wife.

Nils’ world is shattered when he is told that his only son who lives away from home has died, allegedly due to a drug overdose. Nils is convinced that his son has not been an addict and is suspicious. His wife is much more accepting and thinks they need to move on, which ultimately leads to her leaving him.

With everything getting too much for our lead, he is ready to end it all before coming across his son’s friend in his garage, who tells him that his son had been killed as a result of a drug deal that he wasn’t party to.

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So begins Nils’ quest for the truth and revenge. His journey sees him encounter two local crime gangs.  One led by “The Count”, the local boy with a violent streak, but not steak, because he is vegan, played by a fabulously over-the-top Pål Sverre Hagen. The other led by “Papa”, head of the Serbian rivals, played with dead pan brilliance by Bruno Ganz.  (Best known for portraying Adolf Hitler in Der Untergang (Downfall) in 2004).

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To add to all of this, the film is billed as an action comedy. Although there are some brilliant comedic moments in the film, not all of them deliberate I’d wager, it never really takes away from some of the gruesome killings that take place.   There’s certainly a nod to Fargo and In Bruges, and I can understand the Tarantino comparisons which some have likened it to.  Yes there are killings galore and much of it done in a matter of fact way, but it doesn’t feel like Tarantino is at the helm.  It’s got that bleakness that the Scandinavians do so well.

Nils hunts down the killers of his son and makes them tell him who was responsible for the order to end his life. This leads him to The Count and as the body count continues to rise, he manages to ignite a war between the two gangs.  With each casualty, we are poignantly presented with a black screen with a cross (or other religious symbol depending on the newly departed’s beliefs) and their name.  This becomes increasingly ridiculous as the bodies pile up.

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Fans of Nordic Noir TV will recognise Birgitte Hjort Sørensen of Borgen fame playing The Count’s ex-wife, Marit.  There’s also henchmen of the same crime lord Jakob Oftebro (Mads from The Bridge) and Jon Øigarden  (Peter Verås in Mammon).  Looking further afield, another of his men is Kristofer Hivju as “Strike”, who starred as Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones.  Finally, Peter Andersson plays Nils’ brother.  You may have seen him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

There are some great characters in this film, although precious few of them survive for long, so you shouldn’t get attached to anyone. The Count’s juvenile thuggery has many of the best lines and his desire to have things neat and clean is a nice touch.

The film could have been written for Skarsgård, and it certainly seems like perfect casting.   There are elements of farce, but it never quite goes into slapstick. There are bits that will have you shaking your head, laughing out loud, feeling uncomfortable and even sad.  You will be shocked at how gruesome some of it is, but you will be equally staggered at the beauty of the landscape of a rural Norwegian winter.  It should also be noted that the very few women who feature in this film are not treated well, not just in terms of their interactions with other characters, but in their lack of depth.  You feel they are there to serve a purpose, but that’s all.  (Sørensen’s character has the biggest role, but also provides the biggest shock moment in terms of her treatment).

Film - In ORder of Disappearance

I can’t emphasise enough how beautiful this film is to look at, from the snow being blasted from Nil’s huge snow plough, to the incredibly over the top décor in The Count’s house.

It’s increasingly funny and ridiculous in equal measure but the denouement is spectacular and gory. As if everything has been building up to that point. Yes it could be labelled a black comedy, but don’t let the comedy element put you off.

As is so often the way with films and TV from our northern friends, the acting is first class, although this may have seemed more pronounced as we were subjected to adverts beforehand which featured Gerard Butler AND David Coulthard.

The film’s native title is Kraftidioten, which translates as “The Prize Idiot”. Well Nils won a prize but is he the idiot? There were a few candidates for that.

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Crimes of Passion – Dangerous Dreams – Bit of a nightmare?

Crimes of Passion – Episode 5

Dangerous Dreams


Penultimate episode alert! Only one to go after this!!  Let the smoking begin.

So what circumstances will conspire to find Puck, Christer and Eje in some beautiful country house in the middle of nowhere this week? Well we don’t find out straight away as we begin with a pregnant woman opening a package and taking out a book by an Andreas Hallman, which is signed by the author to “Ann-Louise”.  She clearly expected something to be in the book as after flicking through it, she shakes it, but nothing comes out.  This must have been particularly disappointing as we next see her standing by the water’s edge somewhere and she walks into it until she is completely submerged.  (Let’s hope the postman didn’t steal whatever she was expecting).

The Frid and Frid music begins and the titles play. Aah.

Puck and Eje appear on screen, in a car, discussing the same novel that was in the opening sequence. The book apparently won Andreas the Nobel Prize.  I’m guessing for literature rather than physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine or peace. But where have Eje’s glasses gone??  He had them on all last week, but there is no sign of them now!

It turns out that Puck has got a job as Andreas’ secretary and Eje is driving her to her new job. It is in a beautiful country house in the middle of nowhere.  Some of you may be getting a feeling of déjà vu here.  Yes, this blog is as bad as all my others.

Kare, son of Andreas comes to the gates of the property and lets Puck in, but doesn’t allow Eje in. His “genius father” doesn’t allow outsiders in.  Kare explains to Puck that she is taking the job of his sister, Ylva.  This may explain why Ylva looks like she is sucking on a lemon.


We meet the rest of the family. Andreas’ wife Bjorg, Andreas’ son from a previous relationship Jon (who has a heart defect and must avoid excitement.  He should be ok watching this), Jon’s wife, who is also his former nurse – Cecilia.  Then Andreas arrives in the room but what’s this!  It’s Viggo from Arne Dahl!  Any chance I have of taking this episode seriously has now gone.


We see Puck going up the narrowest staircase in the history of the world and then doing her traditional snooping. Andreas, who had told her to be at his study at 3.30 catches her.  She manages to say she had got lost.  Andreas says out loud his thoughts and Puck writes them down then types them up for use in his next book.

Puck walks past Jon and Cecilia’s room to see them getting intimate, with Cecilia in her sexy underwear. Although this is a surprise given what’s been said about Jon’s heart condition, Puck stands watching quite a bit longer than is necessary.  Ylva is watching Puck watching, this time chewing a wasp.

Family physician Dr Isander has now arrived and joins the family for dinner. For dessert, different family members get different coloured bowls.  They have always done this.  (This will be significant klaxon!).  Jon has a bit of a coughing fit after eating a grape from what appears to be fruit salad.  He reassures everyone that it is delicious, just a little too hot.

Puck wakes up from a nightmare (either that or another incredibly loud ticking clock at the side of her bed woke her). She hears a thump and walks out of her room to investigate.  She almost falls over Jon’s body lying on the floor.  He manages to say “murder!” to Puck before dying.

Dr Isander says that Jon’s heart finally gave out. Puck asks if he is sure of this and tells him about his final word.  The doctor says she probably misheard and he was saying “mother” as he was looking forward to seeing her in heaven.

Kare and Ylva are telling Cecilia that she has no reason to stay at the house any longer, but Andreas overhears and tells her she can stay as long as she wants.

Puck phones Eje at his work and what’s this? He’s wearing glasses as he works!  It would seem his eyesight has improved significantly and he only needs them for reading now.  She tells him what she heard and that she doesn’t feel comfortable.


Next we see someone entering Puck’s room and smothering her with a pillow. The snooping and interfering and thinking she has all the rights of the police are over!  But no, she was dreaming again.  She has had enough now and packs her cases and goes to leave, but the front gates are locked.  As she tries to find another way out she finds Andreas who tells her that he needs her and that she has signed a contract.

With there being a large part of the programme already gone, it’s a big surprise there has been no sign of Christer, but don’t worry ladies, here he is. Saying at the gate intercom that he was Puck’s brother and he had some urgent communication for her, he is reluctantly let in.  Eje had called him and he went to investigate.  Once again, whatever he may have been working on in Stockholm is irrelevant.

Christer quickly announces that there should have been a post mortem given the doubt in place following what Puck had heard. He was clearly later arriving into the episode as he has been away drinking, as he tells old sour puss that she is beautiful.  To follow all the other episodes, this means that she is ruled out of having committed any murder, as whoever looks like being the object of Christer’s attention gets to leave with him at the end.  For the first week though, he hasn’t gone for the best looking one, which is clearly the newly single Cecilia.  Does this mean she did it?


Andreas again forbids Puck to leave, but Christer comes to the rescue and takes her away. Puck checks into a hotel.  It’s not clear why she is hanging around, but she manages to get the last available room, which is a double.  It’s clear this will have Christer connotations.

Andreas announces at dinner that he is going to give permission for a post mortem on Jon’s body which will be exhumed. Almost immediately, he chokes and falls from his chair, dead.  He has been poisoned with strychnine. Christer of course, is suddenly investigating this despite not being the local police.

Puck is delighted to find that the woman who runs the hotel she is staying in is as much of a busybody as she is, as she tells her that Bjorg has tried to kill herself and that Andreas has brought several female conquests to the hotel. Doesn’t sound much of a recluse to me!

Christer is interviewing the family members and tells Cecilia that “some say you’re a gold digger”. Sadly, he doesn’t break into the Kanye West and Jamie Foxx song.  Cecilia advises him that she had swapped Jon and Andreas’ portions around as there was quite a bit of ginger in Jon’s bowl.  So was any poison present meant for Andreas?


Christer goes to Puck’s hotel room and asks if he can sleep over as there are no rooms left. He sleeps on the couch.  Next we see him joining Puck in bed, but it’s just another of her dreams.

Puck and Christer return to the Hallman home, everyone forgetting again that Puck isn’t actually in the police. They discover Bjorg and the doctor holding hands on the sofa.  Puck is soon off snooping in Andreas’ room and finds a photograph of a woman.  Ylva finds her and quickly rips up the photo.

The pathologist advises that Jon’s death was indeed heart related.


We see the doctor going into Andreas’ safe and removing an envelope. The key had been missing but he clearly had it all along.  As he is leaving, Christer asks for a word. He asks if anyone knew that he had strychnine in his bag. The doc says that Cecilia may have known as she has helped him in the past with being a former nurse.  He tells Christer that he has found the safe key.

Puck has reassembled the ripped up photo and it is a picture of Ann-Louise. The pathologist wants to see Christer.  Puck asks Yrla who Ann-Louise was.  Yrla explains she was a previous secretary of Andreas and Kare was in love with her.  Andreas sent her away and Kare said he would kill him.  Nice camaraderie with her brother there.

The pathologist tells Christer that Jon was indeed poisoned. It was by something used as an insecticide in plants.  Puck, who remember wanted to leave not so long ago, goes to the greenhouse to speak to Kare.  He gets angry at Puck asking about Ann-Louise and grabs her, but Christer turns up and asks what is going on.  For some reason, Puck says “nothing”.

So Christer gets them all in a room again. He accuses the doctor of poisoning Andreas, who, once again when they are all in a room together like every other episode, he admits to.


Christer is having dinner with Eje in the hotel and the line of the series occurs when Eje sees the photo of Ann-Louise and says she is Christer’s type. Christer asks what his type is and Eje replies “any woman”. The gossipy hotel owner sees the picture and says it is no wonder that Ann-Louise killed herself after Andreas had got her pregnant then abandoned her.  She also mentions the dead girl’s younger sister Irma.  This seems to strike a chord with Christer, although I have no idea why, and he and Eje rush to the car.

Puck is still at the Hallman house as the publishing company want the rest of what Andreas dictated typed up. The bulb in the room in which she is working goes out and she wanders off to find a replacement.  This leads her to Cecilia’s room, where she finds a photograph of Cecilia and Ann-Louise together.  Cecilia catches her and soon they both realise Puck knows that she was Ann-Louise’s sister.  Puck runs and Cecilia chases after her, picking up a heavy ornament on the way.  Cecilia eventually catches up with Puck and hits her across the face with the ornament.

Christer’s car breaks down and he and Eje have to run to the house. Puck wakes to find herself tied to a chair.  Cecilia tells Puck that after what Andreas did to her sister, she wanted to make him suffer.  She had seen Bjorg and the doctor put poison in Andreas’ fruit salad and swapped it round so that Andreas would suffer more at the death of his favourite son. She then killed Andreas.  Cecilia says she is going to burn down the house and injects Puck in the neck as we see Christer and Eje arrive.


Next we see Puck coming to in the hospital and it looks like everything is going to be ok. There’s still time for us to see Christer leaving the hospital arm in arm with the miserable Yrla.

Slightly better episode this week, but that may just have been with the appearance of snow. The cinematography is still fantastic though.


Only one episode left. I guess that must be because Christer will no longer be in heat.


  • Given all the secrecy surrounding the family, just how did Puck get the job?
  • It seems that Jon was poisoned by eating one grape.
  • Why would the pathologist have found the key? Do they think he swallowed it?
  • Puck was wearing the same top several times. This doesn’t happen. Although the big coat she was wearing would mean she wouldn’t have any more room in her suitcase. (Apart from for her funeral outfit).
  • Were exhumations really carried out at night in 50s Sweden?
  • So after a death Puck wanted to leave? WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH THE REAL PUCK!!
  • Swedish for ‘inherits nothing’ sounded like ‘a ring a ding’.
  • I suppose it is fully understandable that Puck had her funeral outfit with her by now.
  • It was very obvious that Puck was dreaming when Christer got in her bed.
  • Why did the nosey hotel owner have a newspaper cutting to hand about the death of Ann-Louise?
  • Why did Puck have to type up the notes she made from Andreas at the house? Could she not have done it elsewhere?
  • The snow made it feel a bit more Noir than previous episodes.
  • None of the family seemed to smoke shocker! (But Puck lit up constantly).
  • I know what to expect from this now, so Henrik Stenson was the Swede I was most hoping for a good performance from on my TV this weekend.
  • When the word ‘fantastisk’ was used, was the translation really ‘excellent’?
  • Are we absolutely sure that Puck isn’t a serial killer?
  • Another story of everyday murder ends happily ever after.
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Bloody Scotland – Stirling – 21 September 2014

A beautiful day awaits us as we step off the train in Stirling to bright sunshine. Coming to the Bloody Scotland Book Festival seems quite appropriate just a couple of days after Scotland decided to stay as part of the United Kingdom, as it could have been the words used by around 45% of those who voted.


It’s the 3rd Bloody Scotland, established by Scottish crime writers Alex Gray and Lynn Anderson and the second I have attended after going to see Jan Arnald (Arne Dahl) and then Jo Nesbo last year.  Last year both the events I attended were in the Albert Halls whereas both of this year’s events are in the same room at the Stirling Highland Hotel.  I’m not doing it on purpose.


Lasting for 3 days, there are a large number of talented authors in attendance from Scotland and beyond. Being the only festival in Scotland entirely devoted to crime writing, it always seems to be well attended and there are some great venues in Stirling to host it.

Additions to this year’s programme include a play at Stirling Sheriff Court where you get to be the jury in a performance about the trial of Peter Manuel, one of Scotland’s most notorious serial killers who was arrested in 1958 and convicted of 7 murders, a football match between Scottish authors and English authors (which the Scots won 14-1) a tour around Stirling Castle where a recreation of a real murder scene from the castle’s bloody history would be performed and a Bloody Cinema event.

There’s 45 minutes between the two things I’m attending which is actually a bit of a relief, as the hill to get to the hotel is not for the faint hearted.  My lack of fitness means an oxygen tank would have been a useful accessory by the time we get there.

Things aren’t exactly well signposted either but we manage to embroil ourselves in the queue, which is expanding quickly.


Sunday 21 September 2014 – Icelandic Noir – Ragnar Jónasson, Quentin Bates and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, 12.45pm


It’s disappointing that more consideration wasn’t given to the many fans of Nordic Noir in Scotland with this event being put on at the same time as an event about Finnish writing.

Three authors for the price of one (4 if you count host Michael J Malone) for my first event of the day and each known slightly differently in Scotland.

Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavik in 1976 and is a lawyer. He also currently teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.


He isn’t well known in the UK. He has had the short story Death of a Sunflower published in the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the first story in the magazine by an Icelandic author. Another short story Party of Two was published in the Crime Writers’ Association 2014 anthology Guilty Parties. He is most well known in his native country for the Dark Iceland crime series set in Northern Iceland, but these novels have only been published so far in Iceland and Germany. A leading Icelandic TV production company are developing a TV series based on the series, so hopefully we will see translated versions of the books and also television versions on the 9pm BBC4 slot in the not too distant future.

Quentin Bates was born in England in 1962. In 1979 he was offered the opportunity to spend a gap year working in Iceland and that year turned into ten.  During these years he worked as a netmaker, a factory hand and a trawlerman.  He also met and married an Icelandic girl and began a family.


For the last 15 years Quentin has been a journalist writing for a nautical trade magazine. He goes back to Iceland twice a year and the Icelandic financial crisis inspired him to try his hand at fiction.

His debut novel, Frozen Out was published in 2011 and since then Cold Comfort, Winterlude, Chilled to the Bone, and this year’s Cold Steal have followed. His books have been published in the USA and Canada and translated in Germany and Holland with Polish and Finnish versions on the way.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, born in 1963, is the most well-known of the trio. She works as a civil engineer in Reykjavik, the city in which she was born and is married with two children. She is an international best selling and award winning crime writer and writes the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series as well as several stand-alone thrillers. She made her crime fiction debut in 2005 with Last Rituals, the first instalment in the series, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. She also writes children’s books.


Five of the series have been published in the UK as well as two stand-alone novels, including her most recent release, The Silence of the Sea.

Today’s host is Michael J Malone. Michael was born in Ayr and has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK. He has written two books featuring his Detective Inspector McBain as well as, earlier this year, The Guillotine Choice, a novel based on the true story of an Algerian man’s years in one of history’s most notorious prisons.

Michael first asked, what makes Nordic Noir so popular? Yrsa answered that she thought it was because the scandic society was perceived as a good society, but she thought it was nice to find the worms and maggots hidden away under the carpet.  Quentin added that it was down to the quality of the writing, which was so good, and straight to the point. Ragnar added that for him it was about the settings – they could be extreme, from really cold winters, to 24 hour daylight during the summer (and lots of mountains to get lost easily in).

The discussion moved on to whether Iceland was different to the other Nordic countries.  Quentin said Iceland was indeed very different, but that each one had a distinctiveness from the others.  When asked about Iceland’s USP, Yrsa said it was that they didn’t have guns – there are very few murders with guns there.  There’s also the closeness of society, where we would normally talk about six degrees of separation, in Iceland, it could be as little as two, so there was a risk that someone would always know who you were.  Ragnar added that whilst there might not be very many guns on the surface, there were certainly a few if you took into account the hunting fraternity.

So, did that mean there tended to be a depressing stupidity to any murders in Iceland? Yrsa agreed with that, adding it all tended to be drunk people arguing and then pulling a knife, so she was often disappointed that a real life murder wouldn’t be enough, even for a short story.  That was the challenge for writers in Iceland – to write something which was believable enough for the reader to think that it could happen.  Quentin added the other challenge was the size of the place, for example, you couldn’t rob a bank, as what would you do with the money? You couldn’t spend it, nor could you take it off the island easily.

Michael asked Quentin if he saw Iceland differently from the two writers who lived there (Quentin now visits to do his research and then comes back to the UK to do the writing) He said he thought he did, although when he visits, he tends to go a bit native again.

Michael tells the audience that Ragnar started translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic when he was in his late teens, and Ragnar adds that his publisher just told him to pick any book he wanted – he ended up translating around one a year.  Ragnar thinks that doing this has influenced his writing in a number of ways – he realised the importance of setting the scenes and he always tries to have a twist at the end.  He was also keen not to kill too many people off in the one place!

We move on to talk about the Icelandic Crime Festival, the second one taking place in November this year.  Quentin tells us the idea was born over a curry and a beer one night and that Ann Cleeves (author of the Shetland series) was instrumental in making it happen – when asked if she would attend she accepted straight away, without even asking when it was.  There was no crime writers community, so they have set up an arm of the UK crime writers association, to network and get to know everyone writing crime in Iceland a bit more.  The media have taken an interest with both TV and radio interviewing Yrsa and others about it.

Quentin pointed out that only 4 Icelandic authors have actually been translated into English (a few more have been translated into other languages though, such as German).  Yrsa reckoned that that was because there are so many good crime writers already published in English that there wasn’t the same urgency for even more.  There used to be a bit of a divide between Icelandic literature and crime writing, and the only cultural show on TV tended to concentrate a lot on poetry.  According to Quentin though, when he was first over, cultural heritage was popular, but now there are lots of crime books.

Quentin talked about how he had resisted for a while from setting his books in Iceland, however he eventually realised he should write about what he knew.  Yrsa pointed out that they considered Quentin to be Icelandic as he could speak the language, which was a really important thing for him to have done. He told us how he had gone to work in a net loft at first and had struggled to learn the language in the first few months, as the Icelanders speak very fast and it’s often difficult to work out when one word ends and another one starts. Yrsa asked him if the locals had laughed at him at first and Quentin said they had, it’s all to do with hearing your own language spoken back to you and because not many people took the time to learn it, it would have been a novelty to them.  He of course learned the swearing first, but we hear from Yrsa that swearing in Icelandic is rubbish – Quentin adding that their swearing tends to be more blasphemous whereas ours is more gynaecological.  Nowadays, the youngsters tend to just swear in English.


The next sets of questions are about the main characters the authors have.  Ragnar’s is a young guy, just graduated as a policeman, and working in the northernmost village in Iceland, which is actually where his father grew up.  It’s a very cold, snowy and dark place, and can only be accessed by sea or over mountains.  His main character, who has left his girlfriend behind, becomes very isolated and depressed.  When the murder takes place, his boss doesn’t appear to be particularly bothered and he ends up having to do a lot of the investigating on his own.

Quentin’s character is a large, ordinary female copper, with nothing remarkable about her at all.  He tells us that originally she was going to be the sidekick, but when he realised his main protagonist was just a series of clichés, he decided to bring her to the centre.  He goes on to say that two thirds of the way through writing the book, he decided to do some research, so he arranged to meet someone from the police in Iceland, and she was exactly as he had been writing the character.  He ended up having to change loads of what he had written as a result.  Yrsa and Quentin discuss the egalitarian attitudes in Iceland, talking about how women have a hard time in the police and there’s often a glass ceiling in many jobs.  Only 14% of the police force is female. Yrsa’s character was always going to be female, and she decided to go from a different angle, by making her a lawyer.  Her latest book was inspired by the story of the Marie Celeste which she has always been fascinated by.  She even took a diving course as part of her research.

Quentin’s latest release has been published as an e-book only, and is about a burglar who breaks into a house one day and comes face to face with someone he really doesn’t want to meet.  Encouraged to talk about the last book to be published in hard copy, that’s ‘Shot to the Bone’, about a dominatrix and someone who has a heart attack.

Ragnar’s last book was a selection of short stories, including one about New Year’s Eve.  The book he is writing now is set in the south east of Iceland, near some glacial rivers and is about an elderly gent who welcomes an old friend from 30/40 years ago, there are some unresolved issues and the obligatory twist at the end. The best thing about writing a series, Yrsa says, is that you have a suite of main characters ready and waiting, but the worst thing is keeping them interesting enough.  Ragnar says that having a main character can have its strengths and weaknesses – you have to use him, but as you go along you gather more background on him.  But, it’s also important to make sure that even though you are writing as part of a series of books, each one also has to stand alone as not all readers will read all of the books or necessarily in the right order.  Yrsa agrees with this adding that she actually wrote a stand-alone book after writing five in the series.  She found this gave her a great deal of freedom and she just wanted to kill everyone off!


What are the weirdest things the authors have done by way of research? For Yrsa it was watching a gallbladder operation (It wasn’t that interesting).  For Quentin, he reckons the research tends to just jump at him, rather than him going to look for it (he has some questionable contacts, about whom I won’t go into detail here!) Ragnar uses his friends in the police force and medical profession.  We finish this part of the session by discussing how important good translators are.

The questions section covered the following:

- what did the writers think of Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, set in early 19th century Iceland.  Yrsa commented that this had only just been translated and there appeared to be a sense of amazement that someone would be interested in writing such a thing.

- how do the writers feel when handing over a book to be translated, and did the sales of Agatha Christie books increase as a result of Ragnar’s translations? Ragnar tells us that no, sales did not increase but that was because more and more people were reading in English.  His books are also translated into German, however in one case he had written a joke which was a play on Icelandic dialect, and this has just been completely left out by the German translator.

- if murders are generally simple in Iceland, where do you get your plots from? Yrsa says they can come from anywhere, as long as she can find something interesting, but not completely unbelievable (she’s killed someone off using  Botox before…) Ragnar says he gets a lot of stuff from British newspapers, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a crime headline that sparks off his imagination.

- has there been any animosity towards Quentin as an outsider writing about Iceland and did he ever consider using a more Icelandic sounding name? It’s been more puzzlement than animosity, and he has been accepted as one of them, given his learning of the language.  He wishes he had used a pseudonym now.

- would Quentin translate his own books into Icelandic? No, he would want Ragnar to do it.

-reflect on the similarities between Scotland and Iceland.  Ragnar says he is fascinated with The Black House, by Peter May, which could easily have been written about Iceland.  The far north of Scotland is very similar in landscape to Iceland.  Yrsa added that there had been discussion about if Scotland had voted for independence whether it could have joined the Scandinavian culture, giving there are lots of things in common such as fishing, agriculture and the landscape.  She adds that of all the countries she has visited outside Iceland Scotland is the one she has most affinity with, and could see herself being Scottish. Quentin adds she would make a better Scot than a Norwegian and there’s no disagreement from Yrsa on this point!

A very interesting event with very likeable authors.


Sunday 21 September 2014 – John Gordon Sinclair and Arild Stavrum, Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, 2.30pm


John Gordon Sinclair first broke into our consciousness as the star of one of Scotland’s best-loved comedy films Gregory’s Girl, which he now won’t mention by name. Lots of TV work and film roles followed.  He has just finished a role in a West End production of Jeeves and Wooster. Now 52, he has published his second crime novel Blood Whispers, the follow up to debut Seventy Times Seven.

Arild Stavrum was a professional footballer who played in his native Norway as well as Sweden, Turkey, Germany and Scotland. He scored 26 goals in 54 appearances for Aberdeen between 1999 and 2001.  He also had two games for his national side.  After trying his hand at management he has turned his hand to crime writing.  Footballers are traditionally not considered to be the brightest.

Now 42, he has had 5 books published in his native Norway. His second novel Exposed at the Back has now been translated into English and has been released in the UK.

Host this time is Craig Robertson. A former journalist who reported on many major stories including 9/11, Dunblane, the Omagh bombing and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. He has interviewed three prime ministers, spent time on Death Row in the USA and dispensed polio drops in the backstreets of India.


His own crime novels are set on the streets of Glasgow. His first novel, Random, was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA New Blood Dagger and longlisted for the 2011 Crime Novel of the Year. He is also the author of SnapshotCold Grave and Witness the Dead.

Arild was asked about his new book.  He said that he had had a long life in football, from 5 to 32, so it had been a big part of his life.  The football language was something that was familiar to him so he wanted to use that in a setting for the book.  There are lots of relationships in a changing room, from jealousy, tensions to who is getting paid the most, so lots of possibilities to make up a crime story.  He touched on the corruption in the game, finishing off by saying that football should be the beautiful game and not about the money/professional side.

Craig then asked John about his, which is a thriller involving Albanian gangsters, to which John said he couldn’t tell us if he knew any personally.  Different from Arild in that he wanted to write about something he didn’t know much about at all. He also wanted his book to be something he would like to take on his holidays, and referred to books he had read where he had enjoyed the ride, but didn’t feel like he had made a connection with any of the characters – he wants people who read his books to feel something. Arild talked about the corruption that goes on in his book and tells us that not everybody was happy with what he’d written. He wrote about match fixing, was told that that would never happen in Norway, then two months later it did.  He likes to explore the darker side of football, some of which was based on real life situations, like the agent who was banned from dealing in players, who a few years later was brought back to negotiate the TV rights, and subsequently conned the football association out of a substantial amount of money.

Craig highlights the plight of young footballers who don’t make the grade and are kicked out onto the street.  Arild added that no one cares, you can go to Barcelona and there will be a whole warehouse full of African players whose careers have been affected by the recent goings on.  What happens then is that a fair number will turn to drugs and prostitution.  Arild is really animated about this subject and tells us he is really angry with the top of FIFA which just seems to be getting bigger and bigger. There is some human trafficking at the beginning of John’s book Blood Whispers. Taken from a Herman Hess saying, the book is about a female lawyer who represents a drug trafficker/drug lord.  As a youngster this lawyer killed someone so she begins to question whether that is something she would be prepared to do again. John gives his character a hard time, but has never really thought about whether it’s different or difficult to write as a female character, as he just thinks about how a character would react to that type of environment.  Craig adds that he chickened out writing with a female lead, much preferring to write from a serial killer’s point of view…

Arild said that he had received really good feedback from some people who had read his book, saying that they found the setting realistic.


We are then let in on a little secret – John studied Norwegian when he was 15, being the only pupil in Scotland to do so.  He also talks about part of his new book being set in the very hotel we are holding the session, remarking that he wanted somewhere which looked good, just in case it ever got made for the telly.  He throws in another fact for us at this stage, which is that Cornton Vale is the only female prison in Scotland.

When asked about why both authors changed from sport and acting to writing, John says that he is currently 50/50 split between the two, but that he would want that to tip towards writing in the future. For Arild it’s about keeping some of the discipline football has (getting up at a particular time etc and sticking to your writing plan).  But he had also written stories and articles for a number of years.

We then move on to talk about John’s shed at the bottom of his garden, something which as a qualified electrician he (eventually) wired himself.  He uses his shed to do the writing and was pleased that he got to choose everything about it.  And because you aren’t restricted to a particular budget when writing, you can have whatever you want in each scene. He adds that when he writes he has the film playing in his head and when editing it he thinks about what a friend in the advertising world would do in each scene.


When asked if they had learned any new skills, Arild said that it was a natural transition for him, as football and writing are both quite instinctive.  John said he just sat down and wrote the book without telling anyone he was going to do it.  He said that it’s better to just to start writing, you will find your authorial voice and then the story might just take on a life of its own.  John said he sometimes found he could make himself laugh or cry when writing and Arild added that he would often talk to himself and treat the characters like real people.

The writers talked about whether or not they should do readings as part of these sessions.  Both did not like to do them, with John adding that when he read a passage out loud his voice did not fit with the story. A straw poll of the audience seemed to suggest quite an even split for and against readings.

As a detour from crime, Arild is now writing some children’s books before going on to do another crime novel.  John says that his books are not a trilogy but they do link.  The stage show he just finished is off on tour so he will be writing in order to tie off a few loose ends when that is on.


Questions from the audience:

- which crime writers inspired our authors? Arild said there wasn’t one, but many, including Carl Hiaasen. He writes nothing like him, but is really dark and concentrates on the environmental issues in Florida. He is also a big fan of Elmore Leonard, who John says he was about to say and that his books often tip a hat to him.

-how do you research books? John reads a lot of stuff. One of his books, based on Ireland in the 70s, was something he had to research a lot as he didn’t know a lot about the country or the bombings at that time.

- what’s been the pinnacle of your careers? For John selling the first book and getting a badge at the Edinburgh book festival which said “author”. Also he worked on “The Producers” with Mel Brooks in London, saying that was the best year of his life.  For Arild, a goal to win the Swedish championship, and a goal in the Scottish cup final.  Taking a penalty in front of 30,000 is an immense feeling when you score. But he also adds seeing his book in print – and confirms that he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Aberdeen.

-what books have you not read and you think you should? John’s reading factual stuff at the moment as he doesn’t like to read fiction when he’s writing. Arild says he is reading John’s book at the moment, and that he has to read something completely different to what he’s working on.  You can’t get much more different than children’s books and Albanian gangsters!

Another entertaining hour positively flew past.

As well as the authors I went to see, at various points I saw James Oswald, Doug Johnstone, Malcolm Mackay and Kati Hiekkapelto.

After getting something to eat, there was still time to meet up with local and fellow Nordic Noir fans Miriam and Siobhan Owen to sample the local beer.

I’m sure we will be back next year.

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