Quais du Polar by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Icelandic author Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s writes for Stirling University’s Nordic Noir group about her experiences attending a French crime fiction festival.

Nordic Noir

Quais du Polar is France´s biggest festival of crime fiction, attracting tens of thousands of readers every year. The festival is different from many others in the sense that it is a book-selling event on a large scale, and the panels and on-stage interviews with the authors are just the icing on the cake.   The main place is the market on the ground floor at the Palace de Commerce, where all major bookstores in Lyon have their own space, dividing between them the 100 authors that are invited to the festival. Luckily I don´t read French because if I did I’d have had to fit a whole palace’s worth of crime fiction books into my luggage back to Iceland!

It was a great honour for me to be invited to the Quais du Polar Festival. My book Snare was just out in French translation (Piégée) the week…

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DVD Review: The Night Shift

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seem impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. After a two decade absence from our screens fans can now tune in each week to new series from across the continent. What may initially have started as a broadcasting experiment has been met with critical praise and an ever growing fanbase which is actively celebrating its appreciation on social media and at events such as the recent Nordicana festival. With Channel 4 and Sky Arts now following the BBC’s example by acquiring subtitled content and giving it a hitherto undreamed of promotional push alongside a steady stream of releases from Arrow Films, aficionados are all too aware they are enjoying a golden age which would not have been feasible a few years earlier.

Framed within its public service remit, BBC Four’s early forays into bringing subtitled drama back to our screens placed emphasis on cultural exchange and enlightenment. As part of a season of programming entitled Wonders of Iceland the BBC made broadcasting history by being the first UK network to screen an Icelandic comedy series.

First shown on the commercially owned station Stöð 2 in 2007, The Night Shift was an instant success. With ratings amongst the season’s highest, the show’s accomplishments were recognized by The Icelandic Film and Television Academy at that year’s ceremony with awards for ‘Best Television Show’ and ‘Most Popular Television Show.’ Despite being relatively unknown in the UK, such was the appetite in its country of origin for further instalments two sequel series (The Day Shift, The Prison Shift) and a theatrically released feature film spin-off (Bjarnfreðarson) were produced.

A petrol station in the middle of a long winter might initially seem to be an unlikely place to stage a black comedy which on the surface appears to be a synthesis of The Office and Fawlty Towers but on deeper inspection this delightfully idiosyncratic and perfectly formed programme reveals high culture credentials through its channelling of the fatalism prevalent throughout the Icelandic sagas. Veering between moments of grotesque absurdity, tenderness, and tragedy, often within the space of a single scene, The Night Shift revolves around an isolated outpost staffed by a crew of three emotionally stunted employees. An eccentric series shot through with pathos alongside frenzied bouts of insanity, it is blessed by layered scripts replete with a focus on personal enslavement, consequences, the value of friendship, and a considered array of social issues including feminism, politics, modern celebrity culture, and Nigerian e-mail scams. Equal parts character study, satire, civic commentary, the programme is decidedly politically incorrect and confrontational yet manages to never be anything less than magnificent.

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Currently in the twilight period of his tenure as mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr has recently been generating column inches with the news that American publisher Melville House has acquired the rights to his political memoir and will issuing it later this year. Titled Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the book will lift the lid on the formation of the Best Party, its ideals and how they may be transposed onto foreign legislative frameworks. Satirizing Icelandic democratic process Gnarr’s unwittingly galvanized an anti-establishment movement seeking to bash the ruling elite for their role in the 2008 financial crisis. A Nordic equivalent of The Monster Raving Loony Party with an inspired list of pledges (and a disclaimer reminding voters they would not be honoured) was forced to redraft its policies into something more practicable after winning six seats on the Reykjavík city council in the 2010 elections.

Before becoming an elected official. Gnarr had a fruitful career as a stand-up comedian and was a regular feature on Icelandic radio and TV. His prior media achievements were eclipsed by the public’s response to his signature role, Georg Bjarnfreðarson.

Proudly possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies Georg is undoubtedly overqualified for the position of shift supervisor. One of the most complex tragi-comedic characters to hit the small screen in the last decade, an amalgam of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Joseph Stalin, with a visage clearly inspired by Vladimir Lenin. Running the petrol station as a totalitarian regime he makes token concessions, under duress, to popular democracy and then after being highly critical of the process rigs the results. A critique in dramatic form of uncompromising left wing ideologues, nuanced writing and a knowing performance reveal a pathetic figure hiding behind the bluster who maintains a wrench like grip on the workplace whilst being powerless when away from the forecourt. Frequently inviting loathing and sympathy, despite his oft mentioned academic achievements he is rarely able to strike an accord with his colleagues and relies on threats of sanctions (fines or an onerous chore) and a barrage of humiliating comments expressed in the most inappropriate moments.

Long-standing co-worker Ólafur Ragnar (Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon) has been employed at the petrol station for longer than any of his colleagues and feels undervalued. A reflection of Georg, they both live at home with family members and aspire to make an impact on society. Whereas his boss wants to remould Iceland to comply with a mishmash of ideas taken from Sweden’s social democratic model and Soviet era Russia, Ólafur has a hankering for fame and its attendant trappings. Manager of the band Solin, he is unshaken in his conviction that the big time is just around the corner. Stretched to breaking point by having to administer the band’s affairs whilst on duty at the forecourt he frequently fails at both tasks. A man-child, mid thirties with the mental age of a teenager. Incapable of overseeing his own affairs, credit blacklisted and not earning enough to fund the lifestyle to which he aspires his sister has had the misfortune to house him, never really expecting to receive the oft promised rent payments. His sibling lives in perpetual fear of finding out their grandmother stricken by Alzheimer’s disease has been coerced into guaranteed a loan or finance for a car.

The offscreen death of Gudjon creates a vacancy at the petrol station and this is filled by Daniel Sævarsson (Jörundur Ragnarsson). Nervy and unsure of himself, recoiling from the ramifications of leaving medical school, he has sought solace in regular paid employment whilst undergoing an existential crisis. Escaping from the lifestyle imposed by his parents, working at the petrol station allows him to take control of his personal destiny for the first time. The radical restructuring of Daniel’s life is a covert operation, his family and girlfriend are convinced he is still enrolled at the university and the discovery of the deceit has far reaching consequences. Breaking away from one form of tyranny he is now sheltering within a workplace cum despotic regime. Days are filled with degradation, discussions of holiday funds, security role play, supervision of Georg’s son Flemming Geir (Arnar Freyr Karlsson), and instructions on correct floor cleaning procedure. Salvation may be be found at a nearby all night convenience store where an assistant, Ylfa (Sara Margrét Nordahl) offers the possibility of a relationship based on mutual respect.

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Screened nightly in two episode blocks by BBC Four, The Night Shift‘s viewing figures were respectable and fans assumed that the station would pick up the sequel series. Sadly, this attempt to broaden the network’s schedule seems to have been a dead end rather than a concerted effort to diversify its content. Firmly committed to screening drama throughout 2014, it highly unlikely at this stage the powers that be will reverse their decision and give us further glimpses of Nordic comedy.

Fondly remembered by those who caught it, a worldly script coupled with knowing faux cinema verite direction from Ragnar Bragason and mature performances from the series regulars and guest cast, exemplifying joy and despair combine to create a highly original show deserving of greater exposure.

A DVD with English subtitles can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

Pressa (The Press) – Season 3

Having delivered solid ratings over two seasons it was inevitable that Icelandic broadcaster Stöð 2 would commission production company Sagafilm to make a third, and possibly final, season of Pressa. In a broadcast landscape dominated by imported programming, and reality TV, Pressa has demonstrated that Icelandic audiences will respond favourably to original home produced dramatic content. That this show is relatively unknown outside of Iceland is something which may be rectified over the coming months as Nordic Noir aficionados become acquainted with Sagafilm’s output following the screening of the American remake of Réttur (a series which I will review at a later date).

Airing in the autumn of 2012 Pressa III is a six part series set amongst the intense world of a tabloid newspaper. As with the previous two installments in this franchise, the primary character in terms of view identification and propelling the narrative’s investigative strand is single mother Lara ( Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). Whilst ostensibly fusing the crime genre with that of the newsroom subgenre this is essentially a series that explores issues related to femininity, as a sociological construct, within a society that is struggling to define itself in the wake of the existential turmoil it endured following the 2008 financial crises. A secondary subtext woven into the narrative’s fabric is an exploration of how emerging trends in information technology are transforming society; in terms of news gathering practices and within the domestic sphere, specifically with regards to how the parent/child relationship may be redefined due to either party concealing information from the other whilst simultaneously using unrestricted social media to share this content.

From a tentative first season Pressa has developed into a show that deserves to placed amongst the other big hitters within the televisual Nordic Noir movement. If the, admittedly very strong, second season, saw the show find its feet it is with the third that it takes full flight thanks to some incredibly brave choices by the screenwriters ( Óskar Jónasson, Sigurjón Kjartansson, Margréti Örnólfsdóttur, and Jóhann Ævar Grímsson). Throughout all six episodes the writers play a game with the audience that involves drip feeding of information, subverting expectations, and reversal of plot points. The viewer soon becomes accustomed to a mode of spectatorship that requires the momentary suspension of any sense of discontinuity as all relevant information pertaining to this series’ narrative and the backstory of what has happened to the protagonist since the closing frames of the second season are slowly revealed over the course of the series rather than opening with an expository laden first episode.

The second season closed with a deeply chilling cliffhanger and it would have been an appropriately bleak moment to bid farewell to Lara, her family, and colleagues. Resolving such a tense moment without undermining its impact is achieved by advancing the time frame, placing the protagonist into a series of situations that undermine her sense of self worth, destroy the family unit, and reverse her role – journalist becomes the topic of sensationalist and intrusive media coverage.

With her life, seemingly, in tatters Lara and her children have returned to a very different Iceland. Her sense of displacement is constantly reinforced in every sector of her life. At work, home, and play she experiences emotional and intellectual obstacles which shatter what little sense of self worth she has after events of the first two seasons. That her dysfunctionality may have been directly responsible for the professional and private tribulations which she is faced with and that she might not be able to overcome compounds the private hell she has to endure.

The criminal aspect of the plot takes on a personal, and ultimately more emotionally powerful, dimension this time as Lara’s daughter dates, and falls pregnant by, a member of a gang that has been extorting money from a Philippine owned business and is complicit in several deaths including a restaurant worker. These star crossed lovers launch the series toward a nerve jangling final pair of episodes which are operatic in terms of the frequency and extremity of tragic occurrences.

In addition to the primary investigative and emotional plot strands, the series surveys how the need to create an electronic portal has impacted on the construction of news. The scriptwriters suggest that the need for instant gratification via a website creates a more sensationalist approach and it is here that the show has some of its finest comic moments. Seeing Þorsteinn Bachmann’s character Gestur finally get his comeuppance after a misguided decision to live stream an interview with a sociopath is one of the finest moments throughout all three seasons and one that viewers have waited a very long time to witness.

This season of Pressa has been nominated in the category of Best TV Program at the 2013 Icelandic Film and TV Awards and this is very well deserved, in my opinion. Should the series be exported to Ireland and the UK I promise any potential viewers of an emotional journey over three seasons that grows ever more frenzied with each subsequent installment  Furthermore, the series is very rich in terms of social information, repeated viewings reveal layer upon layer of commentary ripe for dissection/discussion.

A trailer for Pressa III can be viewed here;

A forthcoming DVD with English language subtitles will be announced shortly. The best place to order Icelandic films and TV shows is;

http://shopicelandic.com/

Svartir Englar (Black Angels)

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Despite being widely read in Scandinavian countries and also having a loyal following in Germany and the Netherlands, the literary output of Ævar Orn Josepsson is relatively unknown to the English speaking world. At present no English language translations of his work are currently available to buy from Amazon although the author’s commercial success and place within the literary Nordic Noir canon is referenced in Barry Forshaw’s fascinating text Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Similarly, whilst an active fan community exists in the UK for Nordic televisual output the knowledge of Icelandic content is currently not widespread amongst the fanbase. However, the recent announcement that Howard Gordon and Alex Cary, producers of Homeland, are developing a remake of Icelandic series Réttur for the NBC network might conceivably facilitate this active audience to seek out other examples of drama programming from the same country and it to be hoped that Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir imprint leases some of the many excellent and scandalously overlooked titles for DVD and Blu-ray release in the UK and Ireland.

Suitably convinced that Josepsson’s work was sufficiently well known within an Icelandic context state broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið RUV commissioned Sagafilm to produce a six part series entitled Svartir Englar that aired in the autumn of 2008 to viewing figures which are still listed as amongst the highest ever recorded for original programming.

The series is a profoundly cynical police procedural drama set in contemporary Reykjavik. Over six episodes and two primary narrative arcs the viewer is introduced to a team of four detectives and this approach enables the writers to present conflicting approaches to police methodology, changes to Icelandic society as a consequence of globalization and the internationalization of criminal activity as by-product of markets transcending geographical boundaries. The contrasting and complementing narrative arcs address a perceived erosion in Icelandic cultural certainties, From the domestic sphere to the political arena, moral certitude is presented as being either weak or non existent.

Images of contemporary social realism open the series and ground the central thesis that Icelandic society is increasingly becoming fractured, possibly even dysfunctional. A body falling from an apartment block in an apparent suicide is the event which which triggers the narrative’s initial investigation. Whilst conducting background checks into the deceased individual’s private and professional past the detectives uncover evidence to suspect that the cause of death may not have been suicide. A deeply disturbing narrative unfolds which encompasses money laundering and paedophilia whilst employing the four distinct styles of policing represented within the series to compare and contrast the ethical and investigative modes of practice employed by each of the protagonists.

An accidentally discarded earring links the two narrative arcs and whilst the second is tonally very different, at least initially, it builds to an equally dark premise; Iceland’s political and judicial system has been corrupted by external forces that will stop at nothing to cover its tracks.

This series has much to recommend, some very tight direction and an outstanding stunt in the opening episode. Well worth tracking down.

The authors of this adaptation are Sigurjón Kjartansson (Pressa) and Oskar Jonasson (Pressa, Reykjavik – Rotterdam). Jonasson is also the show’s director.

A DVD containing English subtitles is available to buy from:  http://nammi.is/svartir-englar-p-1048.html

Pressa (The Press) – Season 2

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Impressed with the viewing figures for the first series of Sagafilms’ Pressa, Icelandic commercial broadcaster Stöð 2 swiftly commissioned a second season which premièred in 2010 to the highest audience recorded in the country for an original drama production. More recently, the show won in the category of Best Scripted TV Series at the Icelandic Film and TV Awards.

Once again the showrunners are Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavík-Rotterdam)and Sigurjon Kjartansson. (Svartir Englar). Additional scripts are provided by J. Ævar Grímsson whose other writing credits include; Astrópía, Næturvaktin, Skaup, Dagvaktin, Fangavaktin, Bjarnfreðarson, and Heimsendir.

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The second season of Pressa takes place amidst the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis which led to the collapse of several Icelandic banks, a loss of market confidence amongst international investors, and an internal existential angst as the country attempted to deal with the political, economic, and social ramifications of living under the burden of such a monumental amount of debt.

Structurally, the series conforms to the template established by its predecessor; a primary narrative arc (or investigation) with several sub-plots which though initially appearing to be self contained, and unrelated, impact upon the eradication of disequilibrium and establishment of a new equilibrium in the final episode. In this second season, as I shall attempt to demonstrate throughout this post, the establishment, maintenance and resolution of all narrative and character arcs is executed with greater precision consequently leading to a more emotionally fulfilling viewing experience. Central to this more effective and sophisticated season is a subtext woven throughout which continuously questions the extent to which commercial imperatives impede/influence editorial decisions and journalistic practices.

Within the opening minutes of the first episode we soon realize that some time has passed since the closing moments of season one. The protagonist, Lara (Sara Dogg Asgerisdottir), is married and absent from work on paid maternity leave. With two children to feed and an unemployed husband Lara is now the sole bread winner. Feminine versus masculine power as a narrative motif is introduced in a sequence where Lara debates with her husband the possibility of moving to Canada thus enabling him to become sole earner or remaining in Iceland with the existing status quo, a female as the head of the family.

In each episode the consequences of accepting or rejecting a male authority figure are depicted in dramatically successful terms. Husband, employer and antagonist are examples of male figures within the Pressa narrative which to varying degrees seek to suppress, banish or mutilate the feminine as a construct. For instance, Lara’s editor, and employer, refuses to offer the newspaper’s financial support in the wake of a libel case due to the inconvenience, both financial and logistical, he thinks that the newspaper has had to suffer due to her already being on maternity leave.

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As financial pressures impact upon the personal sphere Lara obtains employment, in a freelance capacity, from one of the architects of Iceland’s downfall. The deft positioning of oppositional forces is one of this seasons many strengths. The initial premise is that Lara is hired to work for an oil baron accused of sexual assault and murder. The sanctity of the feminine is continually stressed , and under threat, in scenes featuring Lara and her new employer.

Through encounters with those who know or claim to have directly or indirectly members suffered at the hand of the antagonist Lara is torn between her professional duty of establishing his innocence and a personal quest to ascertain any possible guilt. The feminine must consider if the need to alleviate financial burdens is greater than than association with a force who may have mutilated and a murdered other females.

A secondary narrative strand is introduced via a journalistic exposure of a biker gang known for selling narcotics. This initially self contained sub-plot introduces an additional form of jeopardy, explores the extent to which journalists are responsible for the protection of their sources, and establishes the possibility that those in the business of news gathering may have to put their lives at risk in the process of writing a story.

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Of the two seasons the second is undoubtedly the superior and its acknowledgement by the Icelandic Film and TV Awards is testament to some superb acting, writing and direction. Over six incredibly well written episodes the show manages to debate the financial crisis, media ownership, and gender politics. Also, Bjarne Henriksen (Forbrydelsen and Borgen) gives a terrifying performance as a foreign criminal in three episodes.

The series ends with a cliffhanger that will literally send shivvers down your spine.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to order from Nammi.is

 

Pressa (The Press) – Season 1

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Several days ago UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies was contacted by a journalist from the Danish newspaper Politiken who was writing an article about a possible fascination with Nordic culture amongst a sector of the British population. As Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post demonstrates the journalistic discourse was predicated upon the notion that we as consumers may be unwitting cultural dupes responding to a top down Zeitgeist imposed upon us by media organizations and corporate interests. As I posted on the site, any attempt to classify our consumption in relation to the Zeitgeist is deeply problematic due to it presupposing that a singular mode of pleasure when what may be the case is that a variety of audiences may be consuming these texts for differing reasons. In trying to ascertain why sectors of the English speaking audience have become receptive to Nordic literary, televisual and filmic texts within a historically specific context Dr Thomson’s blog entry highlights a very important point which warrants future research using a variety of Cultural Studies methodological approaches. Modes of appreciation and activity concerning Nordic Noir texts is a relatively under explored field and the agenda and research methods applied within an academic context differ significantly to those utilised by the popular press. Referring to the research methods employed in journalistic practice enables me to make a rather clumsy segue to a discussion of the Icelandic televisual text Pressa.

In comparison with the UK, Iceland was relatively late in embarking upon a national televisual service. 1966 marked the year that the country gained its first dedicated state owned broadcaster and in 1986 the a privately owned competitor Stöð 2 began broadcasting to the nation. A cursory glance at the schedules for Stöð 2 reveal a mixture of imported English language programming alongside domestically produced content. The ratio of domestic sourced content in relation to imported texts is not something I have been able to identify and an analysis over a sustained period of time would be preferable to ascertain the extent to which a drama series such as Pressa is representative of the Stöð 2’s commitment to drama.

Premièring on 30 December 2007, Pressa is a series produced by Sagafilm which is set in the newsdesk of national tabloid. To date three seasons have been produced with the last airing in 2011. The primary story arc of each season focuses on journalistic research and reporting of a specific incident of criminal activity. Additionally several sub plots run through each season, some of which are self contained whilst others ultimately feed into the resolution of the primary arc. For this blog entry I shall only refer to the first season but will discuss the other two at a future date.

The series is directed by Óskar Jónasson who may be better known to readers for the 2008 filmic text Reykjavík-Rotterdam. Interestingly, the series employs the show runner system of script development and in addition to his role as director Jonnasson serves as co-lead writer alongside Sigurjon Kjartansson.

The Leveson Inquiry has brought journalistic ethics into mainstream social discourse and consequently I was intrigued at the possibility of viewing a televisual text which debated within a dramatic framework the validity and viability of press activity at personal and governmental levels. Although Pressa is an ensemble series the majority of the narrative action concerns that of newly appointed journalist Lara (played by SaraDogg Asgerisdottir) who gains employment with the paper on the basis of a recommendation from a friend and is armed with a spec story which leads to a cabinet minister’s resignation. During her initial interview the paper’s editor spells out the professional code of conduct and the series’ modus operandi: “To become a terrific journalist on The Post you have to become awful in everything else. We aren’t here to make friends.”

Familial relations have been a generic trope in the Nodic Noir texts I have previously encountered. The emotional sacrifices made by the protagonist as a consequence of professional decisions has been a sub-plot in Forbrydelsen and season two of Borgen. In Pressa the protagonist is a single mother who is endeavouring to forge a new career whilst raising a daughter with minimal assistance from her former partner who is a university lecturer that seems to prioritize attending faculty functions and seducing students over that of his child’s welfare.

The primary narrative strand concerns a possible murder and subsequent concealment of the body. The series’ opening sequence invites the viewer to conclude that a homicide has taken place. After some brief time-lapsed shots of Iceland’s windswept volcanic landscape we see a car parked on a deserted road. After cutting to a shot of the windscreen we hear the sound of gunshot and see a splashes of blood coat the glass.

The exposition laden opening instalment is the weakest of the six and it requires the viewer to suspend her/his disbelief on several occasions to the point of shattering any semblance of credulity. In the interests of fairness I will add that the series improves greatly as it progresses and whilst I found much to enjoy it took me two attempts to overcome initial displeasure with the opening episode to continue viewing the series. Subsequent instalments are better structured in terms of dramatic pacing, emotional involvement with the characters and are richer with regards analysing the extent to which the press may be justified in pursuing a story.

I was initial perplexed and frankly infuriated that the text’s authors expected the viewer to accept that a thirty-something without a degree, no journalistic training or relevant career experience would be able to be employed in a front line position by Iceland’s top selling red top newspaper. Having previously worked for a regional newspaper I managed a wry smile upon noticing the incredibly small amount of staff employed by this paper. One episode has a sub-plot of the journalistic staff having to take photographs due to the paper’s sole photographer being unable to work that day.

The paper does not seem to engage in any form of fact checking. Once the identity of the deceased is revealed to the media it is Lara who identifies him from an article she had previously read in a lifestyle magazine. The murder victim is a mechanic named Mani who just happens to be married to Iceland’s most popular television presenter and prominent local politician, Esther.

Another example of clunky storytelling all too evident in the pilot episode is a sequence in which the grieving widow willingly poses for a series of photographs which would be better placed being published in an issue of Heat or OK Magazine than the lead story of a newspaper seeking to bring a killer to justice.

The remainder of the series is tonally very different. Many of the faults which spoiled my viewing pleasure of the pilot are either eradicated or marginalized to the point where they no longer matter. Particularly interesting is a sub-plot which debates the extent to which the media may be justified (or not) in the identifying of paedophiles living in the community.

Although I may have been pretty damning about the series’ opener I was gripped by the subsequent five episodes and am looking forward to viewing the other two seasons.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to buy from http://shopicelandic.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&category_id=48&flypage=flypage.tpl&lang=en&manufacturer_id=47&page=shop.product_details&product_id=1501&Itemid=104&vmcchk=1&Itemid=104

Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post concerning Nordic Noir and the Zeitgeist can be read at:

http://scancrime.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/help-please-nordic-culture-and-the-british-zeitgeist/