Devil’s Fjord… a whale’s tale

They live as a family. They perish as a family. How else? If any
manages to escape it’s our duty to chase it down and kill the
creature as gently as we can. Better than to leave it wandering
the open seas alone, only to starve and beach itself on rocks
somewhere. You are town people. Perhaps you don’t understand.
This is a harvest. We kill with kindness. But we kill. We kill them
all. No man or woman can live in a place like Djevulsfjord unless
they take a life from time to time.

Baldur Ganting

Years ago I sat next to an author at an event where we were asked about violence. My fellow writer voiced the opinion that she was willing to inflict any amount of cruelty on a human being, man, woman or child, in order to tell her tale. But she could never begin to consider writing about harming an animal.

This is one of the oldest dilemmas writers face. Dismember and burn alive people in the name of entertainment and it’s fine. Kill a cat and your inbox is going to fill with hatemail.

So let me say from the outset… my new mystery set in the Faroe Islands pitches you straight into this dilemma from the beginning. It’s the story of a decent, intelligent, charming townie couple, Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen, who’ve retired to a remote fishing village in the hope of bucolic bliss.

Tristan has taken on the job of District Sheriff. This is nothing to do with keeping the law except in one very specific respect: he is the officer who is in charge of seeing the whale hunt is carried out legally and responsibly according to the very strict rules laid down by the Faroes Government.

A good if naïve man, Tristan thinks this is almost a sinecure. An urban fellow with little knowledge of fishing village ways, he understands the whale hunt is a long-standing tradition in Faroes society, one which people honour and look forward to. An event the outside world may not appreciate, but a ritual dating back centuries that is part of his small, remote nation’s culture.

As he mows his grass roof word comes that a school of pilot whales has been seen offshore. Baldur Ganting, the leader of the local fishermen, arrives to tell him it’s time to give the green light to the ‘grind’, the hunt which will see the creatures first shepherded inshore, then beached on the sand where they will die in rivers of blood.

Tristan is about to appreciate the reality of the annual ritual he has always taken for granted… and find himself engaged in the mystery of two boys who go missing when the ‘blackfish’ are being slaughtered in the bay.

I knew when I set out to write this story that I was going to have to face up to the challenge of depicting the whale hunt with a stab of accuracy. The very tight rules and regulations surrounding it are readily available from the Faroes government on the web. There are also plenty of YouTube videos depicting what happens. I’m not going to run them here because frankly, unless you’re prepared, they’re pretty shocking.

If you see those videos it’s hard to think that the whale hunts are anything but cruel and violent. The pilot whales may not be endangered — yet — but equally they are no longer an essential food source. In fact there’s medical evidence to suggest they’re not healthy to eat at all because of mercury contamination among others in the flesh. Communities like the Faroes — and Iceland — have a long history of hunting species most of us wouldn’t touch, such as puffins and even seabird chicks. But that stemmed of old from economic necessity, living in such remote and difficult locations.

That’s no longer the case though the cultural claim to such traditions remains. And the counter argument to city folk citing the cruelty of whale hunting is simple and telling. Most of us eat meat, much of which has come through an equally barbaric system of factory farming. The pilot whales that die on the beach in the Faroes are creatures that enjoyed free, wild lives until they were hunted down. How does that compare with a battery chicken that never sees the light of day? A pig that is trapped in a muddy pen? Or a pheasant reared to be shot by a rich hunter then buried in the earth in their thousands because they are there for the killing, never the eating?

The Faroese slaughter around 800 whales a year. Something like 850 million chickens die each year for KFC alone.

As a writer I could take either side of that argument. But for Devil’s Fjord I opted to take neither. The locals who hunt the blackfish do so because it’s part of their culture, and, in their dying fishing community, for economic necessity. Those who oppose them do so for equally sound reasons. Tristan and his wife try to sit somewhere between the two and find it’s a decidedly uncomfortable place to be.

If you want to understand some of the history behind this, I recommend one of the few works in Faroese literature translated into English, The Old Man and His Sons, by Heðin Brú. Set in the 1930s, it depicts a society that is still feudal, one where the meat and the money from the whale hunt was essential to keep families alive during the long, harsh winter.

For the fictional village of Djevulsfjord, the world of Heðin Brú is still real. They need to kill those blackfish, and if outsiders fail to understand why… well, that’s their problem.

This is all an essential part of the canvas I wanted for a story that I hope reflects the essence of Scandinavian storytelling, the brutish savagery of the saga, an elemental conflict between light and dark, life and death, one where fate sometimes seems preordained. Perhaps by nothing more than the class into which you’re born.

It would have been dishonest to shy away from the bloody reality of the grind. Just as it would have been hypocritical to take a dismissive and censorious view of the reasons why it still happens.

More than anything, though, I felt it would be wrong to try and gloss over the reality of the slaughter when those whales get driven to the shore. This is the pivotal moment where the narrative kicks into action. Devil’s Fjord is, I hope, a compelling mystery in its own right. But it’s also a tale about what happens to remote communities when they’re ignored, deprived of support, looked down upon by the world at large, and left to fend for themselves.

The whales that die on Djevulsfjord’s shore are emblematic of the cruelty inflicted upon the pauper community that pounces on them for their flesh. Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen are about to find that out for themselves.

Which is why that quote from poor Baldur Ganting at the head of this post is at the very heart of the story.

Devil’s Fjord is available in paperback and ebook now from Canongate, and the current paperback of the week for the Sunday Times Crime Book Club.

If you hurry you could win a free copy and a lovely bottle of Icelandic vodka by going here.