This is a nation of reading and storytelling, with a rich literary history of world renown, where it is a long-standing tradition to give books to each other as gifts on Christmas Eve, where the legends of the Sagas are writ large in public spaces, and where one in ten people see their words in print…In Iceland, stories have long been told as a means of survival.
Serious crime isn’t nonexistent in Iceland, but it’s not common either. In 1974, two men, Gudmunder and Geirfinnur Einarsson (unrelated despite the surname) disappeared and were presumed dead, despite their bodies never being found. Their disappearances set into motion the Nordic island nation’s biggest investigation in history. The result was the conviction of six people, mostly petty criminals, several who didn’t know each other, based on their own confessions.
Unfortunately, these confessions were coerced, manipulated and obtained under extreme duress. It’s highly unlikely that any of the six had anything to do with the disappearances of either man. It remains questionable whether the men were even murdered or rather died as the result of unrelated accidents. But of course, this kind of case always raises the question of why anyone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. It also provides one of the best explorations into this topic that I’ve come across.
London-based journalist and BBC producer Anthony Adeane spent several years in Iceland, beginning in 2014 after pitching a documentary about the bizarre story. With his outsider’s perspective and ability to distill much about what’s unusual and unique in the country, he researched and conducted interviews with survivors still connected to the case. I’m not sure why I decided to give the book a chance when I gave up on the Netflix documentary of the same name a few months ago, just not able get into it, but I’m glad I did because the book is incredibly compelling.
Adeane presents narratives of what occurred in terms of the disappearances and, in most detail, during the hectic, frenzied time of the interrogations. A lot of material comes from Erla Bolladottir (though it doesn’t feel biased), the only woman involved. She shows how much the investigation has shadowed the rest of her life as she still struggles for exoneration. She also provides chilling first person insight into how and why her confession came about.
Some of the story takes place in the present, where the cases continue to dominate headlines. They were never really solved, so as late as 2016, new leads have popped up – sometimes shedding a little light on what may have happened and why the police pushed the narrative of events that they did.
Adeane puts forth an excellent overview of the phenomenons of false confessions and planted memories. This includes extensive information from disturbing studies done about the harmful, hallucinogenic effects of isolation, in which these suspects were held. The research done on suggested memories was new to me, and reading about it was so enlightening. To anyone who doubts whether false confessions are possible, taken together with the ease that researchers have had in making study subjects believe their suggested false memories, you’ll really have to work to doubt it after this.
The book shows what a strong hold this psychological manipulation of false confessing and planted memories has. It’s been surreally confusing for some of the six to come to terms with the fact that they didn’t commit crimes, even knowing what they know now, so long after the fact. One “still has memories of that same moment, like replays of an old film, in which he drives to Keflavik at night down the long, dark road that carves through the lava fields, to play his part in a crime that probably didn’t happen, to be on time for an appointment he never made.”
Besides being a true crime account of what went wrong and why in this case, Adeane writes a book that’s like a mini cultural and social tour of Iceland. I know next to nothing about the country besides its recent, sometimes hipsterish boom in tourism, having become a favorite especially for American vacationers (which gets some attention here, including how it’s affected the Icelandic people.)
I learned so much from this part of the book. Iceland has a fascinating and strange history, which influences much of their present culture and beliefs. Adeane tells the historical and cultural aspects so well, including major events like the 2008 financial crisis and the country’s importance in the Cold War, and cultural quirks like bizarre bans and resistance to outside influence. A particular sticking point here is the infiltration of the English language (which seems odd considering how well the people Adeane encounters speak English.)
So much strikes an outsider as weird or surreal about the country and its norms. Part of that stems from how small it is, which made the aftereffects for those convicted doubly horrible. It was impossible to escape the public eye. The whole country is a village. “Reputation is everything in a country where anonymity is impossible,” he writes.
There were several cons: first, I remain confused about what exactly happened in terms of the disappearances. One of the stories is much clearer to me than the other. This may be partly my fault, because the book is written so compellingly that it’s easy to get lost in it. I read it in less than a day, which was probably too fast, considering the confusion of what’s true and what’s not. The onslaught of Icelandic names didn’t help.
Second, Adeane doesn’t focus much on the families or friends of the missing men, only on the convicted suspects. Granted, the story is of a huge miscarriage of justice, underscored by the emphasis Adeane places on making the reader understand the possibility of false confessions and planted memories. But like in too many sensational crime stories, the victims are ignored. It makes a lopsided story, for example Geirfinnur’s disappearance narrative in its various forms always includes the element of liquor smuggling, but without what I felt was clear input from his family on whether he was actually ever involved with that.
Third con, there’s very little about who or what may have been responsible for the disappearances. It’s very odd that in a country with minimal serious crime that two disappearances would occur so close together and without any trace of them being recovered. Maybe it’s really that no information about the truth exists, lost in the whirlwind of what came after, but it does feel unsatisfying to be left completely wondering.
It’s a completely gripping read despite these drawbacks. The fascinating cultural and historical aspects should make it an interesting choice even for non-true crime readers.
Out of Thin Air:
A True Story of Impossible Murder in Iceland
by Anthony Adeane
published April 3, 2018 by Harper Collins Canada
originally published in the UK March 8, 2018 by riverrun (Quercus Books)