Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Little Lava Prison

Aline here. I’m delighted to welcome Michael Ridpath as my guest blogger this Sunday. He wrote best-selling novels with a financial background and has now moved on to the intriguing Fire and Ice series, set in Iceland. The first book, Where the Shadows Lie, was short-listed for the Crimefest eDunnit award. It’s a great read and the next one, 66 North, is just as good.


Iceland is a small country with only 300,000 people, and they say everyone knows everyone else. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the Icelandic criminal mastermind I met in jail on Friday afternoon should be well known to the policeman I saw for tea the following day.

I should explain. I write a series featuring an Icelandic policeman named Magnus, who started off his career as a homicide detective in Boston. I am just about to start the fourth book in the series, and, as has become my habit, I spent a few days in Iceland in September to research it. In this book Magnus is going to do some jail time, so I thought I had better visit Litla Hraun, Iceland’s only significant prison. Litla Hraun, means “Little Lava” and the prison is set on the outskirts of an old trading village on the south coast where several thousand years ago a stream of lava froze on its way to the sea.

There is no bail in Iceland. If you are suspected of a serious crime, such as murder, you are placed in solitary confinement in Litla Hraun, where you are only allowed outside for one hour in twenty-four, and that in a small, white-walled courtyard. If, however, you are fortunate enough to confess and be convicted, then you go through to the main part of the prison.

This reminds me a little of my daughter’s student hall of residence, except it is nicer. Each cell has a TV, laptop (Internet disabled), and shower. Although the cell doors are big and metal and blue, they seem to be left open all the time. There is a recreation area with a big flat-screen TV in each wing and the inmates can cook for themselves. Very nice. No wonder there is a waiting list of 300 to get in.

My guide was a big, gentle man with a soft voice. His aim is to keep the prison calm at all times. In this he usually succeeds, but every now and then a prisoner will “go bananas”, and that is when the guards have to take measures. Anyway, we were walking across the yard when a cheerful man in his thirties wearing shorts and a sweatshirt bounced up. He spoke rapid fluent English and seemed on the best of terms with my guide. He had even read one of my books in English. We went through to a classroom, where he and two others were taking university degrees. He was studying business and law, his pony-tailed friend was studying physics and the third student was learning polar law. Iceland has the highest number of prisoners studying for a degree per capita in the world. That’s 3 divided by 300,000 – Iceland leads the world in many things on a per capita basis.

The following afternoon, I met my usual police contact in Mokka, the cosiest café in Reykjavík. He told me a little more about the bouncy man in shorts, whom he had spent a year trying to put in prison. Bouncy Man operated an amphetamine factory on an industrial estate and was exporting to Holland – which is the equivalent of exporting coals to Newcastle, or to West Virginia, I suppose. Not only that, but Bouncy Man had managed to secure an EU grant to pay for the ingredients. Needless to say, my policeman was unhappy to hear that his adversary was brushing up on his business skills.

All this demonstrates the problem with writing about Iceland. The country is a little odd. Icelanders have strong and varied views about the justice system I have just described. I probably have views too, but I try very hard to keep them to myself. My characters can have opinions, certainly, as can my readers. But I think I do a better job if I observe rather than judge.

Michael lives in London and his books have been published in over 30 languages worldwide. Where the Shadows Lie


Donis Casey said...

These books sound fascinating and I must get hold of them. I have an overweening interest in Iceland - I don't know why, since I've only been there once, on a stopover from NY to Dublin. Maybe I was Icelandic in a former life.

Rick Blechta said...

Sounds like a very interesting series. Thanks very much for sharing, Michael!

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