'I had to pick something someone would kill for': Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on 'The Reckoning'

14 November 2019 - 11:44 By Mila de Villiers

“Try to get everything else right and then you can get away with elaborate murders.”

The 21st-century doyenne of Icelandic noir, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, has unveiled the secret to creating a plausible story about a serial killer, set in a country where less than 1.8 homicides (!) are committed annually. Tricky, ?

In between the odd cough and throat-clearing (this husky-voiced smoker of slim, strong Marlboros has a slight cold), she maintains that it was tough to get over the feeling that her writing was unrealistic.

Owing to Iceland's low crime rate, she had to ensure that the setting and characters in her latest novel, The Reckoning, were as credible as possible.

And credible they are ...

A civil engineer by profession, Sigurðardóttir is well-versed in the art of research and has read “so many books” featuring serial killers and grisly murders that she delivers detailed — and legitimate — descriptions of how bodies decompose, limbs are severed and torturous acts are executed. (There's a reason The Reckoning has been described as “brutal”, “dark”, “creepy” and “chilling”.)

“Gross crimes against children” comes the assured response in answer to what she would describe as the main theme of her macabre novel.   

As with other Nordic noir novels (Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, in particular, comes to mind), the failure of the state to defend children is central to the plot of The Reckoning.

“I had to pick something someone would kill for,” Sigurðardóttir says of her decision to base the plot on an actual case, in which a young girl was “absolutely failed by the state”.

“It's catastrophic the way she was treated,” she furthers, shaking her head in disbelief. 

“I didn't want to write about that exact case, but something similar. I wanted to make it worse, I guess,” she hollowly laughs. “That's why I was so angry when I was writing it.”

The murder and rape of Vaka Orradóttir, an eight-year-old girl who had recently moved to a new town, serves as the catalyst of The Reckoning. 

Sigurðardóttir introduces the reader to the vile character of Jón Jónsson, the abusive and alcoholic father of one of Vaka's classmates, ultimately convicted of raping and smothering her in his daughter's bedroom. 

Years after this heinous act, Jónsson is released from prison. Shortly thereafter a slew of bloody murders is committed. The victims? People associated with the case. 

Enter gruff and disgraced detective Huldar and compassionate, whip-smart child psychologist Freyja, who are assigned to identify the serial killer before further murders are committed.

“They can't be too perfect,” she says of her ability to create authentic — and relatable — characters for a genre which tends to feature stock figures. 

“It's quite fun to write the real[ly] bad ones,” Sigurðardóttir explains, as one has “the opportunity to make them pay for what they did”.             

In addition to the “really bad ones”, members of the police force and working professionals, Sigurðardóttir draws on the Icelandic youth, from schoolchildren to disaffected 20 somethings.

“Life has failed them and they're trying to be scary and tough by wearing tattoos,” she gently explains in light of Jónsson's son, Thröstur, a tattooed, pierced, Weltschmerz-y 24-year-old, perpetually dressed in black and sporting knock-off Doc Martens.

“We have some young boys that are the same type of character ... Something sad is happening in their lives,” the author emphatically muses.

She attributes her capability of sympathising with those rejected by society to her love of reading. 

“Reading makes you a kinder person,” she says. “You situate yourself in other people's shoes and situations.”

And regarding her aptitude to create congeneric characters? Easy: people who are “too perfect, too smart” are boring. 

“I don't find them interesting — as a reader and a writer. It's just ... ugh,” she shudders.

With renewed fervour, Sigurðardóttir spews vitriol at the improbable protagonist of a book she had recently read. “It was so bad,” she says of the main character — not only was said character the “best archaeologist in the world”, she also happened to be a cheerleader.

“Oh, c'mon!” she exclaims with an incredulous expression.

As for how many times she's been asked how to pronounce her surname over the past two days in SA? “Maybe five times!” she laughs. 

And no, unfortunately there's no pronunciation prompt à la this interview avec our favourite Icelandic songstress who once-upon-an-Oscar-eve donned a swan dress.