BATES on Frozen Out: Stranger than fiction
Quentin Bates went native in Iceland for ten years before returning to live in England. He drew heavily on his intimate experience of life there to write his debut novel Frozen Out, published by Constable & Robinson on 27th January and by Soho Crime in the US (as Frozen Assets) on the 18th January.
The idea of an Icelandic crime story had been lurking at the back of my mind for a long time. The idea stayed there, along with so much other junk, despite regular visits to Iceland both for pleasure and for the day job on an obscure nautical magazine. It was only when I found myself with a spare afternoon once a week for a few months that the idea resurfaced. The story came to life, and the characters with it, some in the most unexpected ways, as the release of not writing about winches and sonars every day turned into a pleasure. My police officer, Gunnhildur, sprang to life, cracking her knuckles and demanding attention, before the story had taken shape.
With much of the book’s first draft written, it was in 2008 that things started to happen. That year I spent a lot of time in this strange little country that had been home for a decade, and saw at first hand that things weren’t right. Friends and relatives were nervous. Everyone knew that the country’s supercharged economy was about to blow a gasket, but nobody wanted to say anything out loud. The government and captains of industry put on their broadest fixed smiles and insisted that everything was just fine, thanks.
It was actually quite uncanny in a society that had been awash with cash, endless credit and debt-fuelled high living for years when people whispered the open secret that the banks’ coffers were empty and credit was no longer available. In October 2008 I arrived in Iceland for another visit, reading the headlines on the flight from England that Bradford & Bingley had been nationalised, waking up the next morning in Iceland with the news on the radio that Glitnir, one of the country’s three main banks, had admitted to doing the equivalent of using Visa to pay its Mastercard bills and vice versa. It was an interesting time, to say the least. Rumours were rife as people speculated, openly at last, whether or not their jobs, homes and savings were safe. The old-established Landsbanki followed Glitnir into an ignominious crash. Kaupthing teetered and followed suit – and many of those who had feared they would lose their jobs or savings were sadly proved right, as did the Dutch and British savers who had been tempted by too-good-to-be-true offers of higher interest on IceSave accounts.
What had been one of the materially wealthiest societies in the world, bursting with self-confidence, had been cruelly brought down to earth as the lines of credit ran out. Politicians floundered to save face and keep things afloat. Blame was freely apportioned on all sides. Bankers became figures of hate and the world’s media flocked to wallow in Iceland’s bruised pride that was in fact a vivid microcosm of what was also happening elsewhere.
All this was material. With Frozen Out still in its first draft, all this was too good – or bad – not to use and I redrafted the story, shifting the action from spring to autumn to allow the events to coincide with those mad weeks in October 2008 as the tension grew, coming to a head in the demonstrations that brought the government down later that winter.
Looking back, those few weeks of confusion were merely a precursor to the revelations that are still coming to light, each more bizarre than the next, even more than two years down the line from what is now referred to by Icelanders as ‘The Crash.’ Those weeks form the backdrop to my rotund heroine Gunna the Cop’s investigation that begins in the coastal backwater she takes care of, leading her in turn to follow the trail to Reykjavík.
She is plunged deeper than she wants to be into the mystery of why a young man drowned in the harbour of her fishing village on a warm summer’s night a hundred kilometres from where he should have been. In the process she uncovers antics and excesses that today seem to have faded in comparison to the revelations that are still being made about Iceland’s garish economic boom years, even two years and more after the Crash.
The adage that fact is stranger than fiction is bleakly true here. With hindsight, I could have gone wild in Frozen Out and not even gone near the brink, let alone over the top.
Released 27th January 2011