Writing’s a funny old business. You never quite know what’s round the corner. At the moment that’s a new book, Devil’s Fjord, out from Severn House in hardback on February 1, a standalone mystery set in the Faroe Islands. Kind of gentle Scandi noir with a tough edge to it, I guess. Nothing like any book I’ve written before, which is no bad thing.
Readers always ask: where do stories come from? It’s often a hard question to answer. But on this occasion, not so tough. Let me explain…
Some years ago I was asked to adapt The Killing TV series into novel form. It was a highly enjoyable exercise, especially since I was given free rein to change whatever I wanted from the screen in order to make the narratives work as a book.
Successful too, so much that, after the third TV series was out and adapted to the page, my then publisher asked me if I’d like to write a fourth book with Sarah Lund, a novel from scratch, mine alone.
Now TV adaptations are contractually extremely complicated so my first question was: can we do that? Do we have the rights?
Sure, I was told. Put together a plan.
The TV series consisted of three different stories, produced years apart. The books gave me the chance to turn these into more of a deliberate trilogy about the curious character of Lund. I changed the endings of all three in ways I felt worked better as a book. All the same at the end of the third — I am trying to avoid spoilers here — it’s obvious that a fourth story could not run sequentially on from the way that concluded. So my idea was to try to explore what made Lund who she was: a strange, obsessive woman, with a difficult son and a failed marriage.
Oh, and an obsession with those jumpers too.
The jumpers came from the Faroe Islands. My idea was to write a prequel, one in which a newly-divorced Lund went there to recover with her son and found herself dragged into a local murder that made her the odd person we meet on TV.
Two months I spent on research and planning. Only to be then told: the complex hierarchy of the various rights holders in Denmark was barring the book going ahead. So we didn’t have the rights really at all.
Two months, unpaid and wasted. Well, hey. It’s only ‘author time’ and we know how much that is worth.
The thing is all the research I’d done on the Faroes rather got to me. There were, at the time, only two works of Faroese literature translated into English. I read them both. One was a rather odd historical tragedy. The other an equally strange but more entertaining and modern story of fishing folk struggling with the feudal system of the 1930s, The Old Man and His Sons. I found the latter hard to get out of my head. So gradually a story emerged from this original research for Lund: a mystery set in a remote Faroes fishing village in which two outsiders arrive seeking a peaceful retirement only to discover themselves in the midst of a brutal community torn apart by its own divisions.
I wrote the first twenty thousand words and my editor at Severn House loved it and said: yes.
Which generated the first dilemma. This was the beginning of January. The Faroes aren’t an easy place to get to at the best of times from the UK, and the weather and daylight at that time of year aren’t conducive to research, or representative of high summer, with its whale hunts, when I wanted the story to take place.
Now perhaps it’s my journalistic background but usually I’m a stickler for research. For the Costa series I moved to Rome for a while and signed up at a language college. Whether it’s Venice or Calabria (for The Savage Shore), Copenhagen with Lund or Amsterdam with Pieter Vos, I’ve always made a point of visiting pretty much everywhere I write about and trying to see it through the eyes of locals.
But you don’t have to work that way. Jules Verne wrote Around The World In Eighty Days when he’d barely set foot outside of France. Lots and lots of authors set their stories in locations they’ve never visited. That’s why we’re filed under F for Fiction. Was this the time to leap into the unknown myself?
There’s the confession. I’ve never been to the Faroes. I’d like to because it sounds a fascinating mix of wildness, northern culture and extraordinary landscapes. But this story isn’t set in the real Faroe Islands. It may use some of the real locations and practices, such as those in whale hunting. But Devil’s Fjord is a myth, a fabrication. A work of the imagination and in no way a guide book.
I invent and mangle as I see fit, ignoring, for example, the complex Faroese naming system and the fact that women do not take their husband’s surnames on marriage. I don’t want it to be ‘authentic’, whatever that means. I simply crave a riveting and unusual story, one set in a wonderful location that hovers between the real and the mythical. A place where whales die in a bloody and happy harvest on the beach, the night is illuminated by the neon strangeness of the Northern Lights, and firesides resound to the primal richness of old folk tales.
This is the world Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen enter looking for a peaceful paradise in which to retire. As the story opens Tristan, the District Sheriff, a part-time official required to monitor the seasonal whale hunts, is on his roof mowing the turf that stands instead of tiles. Out to sea a pod of whales has been sighted. Villagers are gathering at the harbour, anticipating a rich catch that will see some of them through the coming harsh winter. And two young brothers are arguing about what to do when the dying whales are chased ashore, there to be dispatched in the bloody waves.
As I said, a new horizon in storytelling for me. I hope you like it. I’m delighted to say the audio will be available simultaneously with print publication, narrated as usual by the wonderful Saul Reichlin who, dutiful as ever, visited the Faroese Embassy to learn how to pronounce some of the words I threw at him.
But let me emphasise again: this is fiction through and through. The real Faroe Islands are a much more peaceful place than I depict here, and quite different in many details too I’m sure.
Oh and here’s a photo of some creatures you will meet in the book: puffins. I did take this picture. But at the wonderful Bempton RSPB bird reserve in Yorkshire, though who knows? Perhaps these chaps did visit the area of Vágar where I invented the fictional fishing village of Djevulsfjord for the story.