False confessions to murder in 1970s Iceland

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

Everyone in Iceland has heard of Gudmunder and Geirfinnur. They were two (unrelated) men who disappeared in 1974, albeit ten months and several miles apart. Gudmunder Einarsson was a teenage labourer who loved to arm-wrestle; Geirfinnur Einarsson a construction worker and family man. Other than shared national hysteria in a country where people rarely go missing, there was nothing to link these mysteries — until, one by one, a ragtag group of petty criminals started to confess to their murders.

The investigation was the biggest in Iceland’s history. It spanned decades, and saw ten people arrested in relation to the crimes, some of whom spent several years in prison. But as the fever for justice gradually gave way to journalistic scrutiny, the entire narrative began to unravel. Though everyone in Iceland may have heard of Gudmunder and Geirfinnur, still no one knows what really happened to them.

In 2014, Anthony Adeane, a British journalist and BBC producer, began investigating the disappearances for a documentary. Without speaking Icelandic or having extensive contacts on the ground, his only resource was the tiny country’s phone index. ‘There can be few easier places to make a documentary than Iceland,’ he writes, describing how every citizen, including the prime minister, has their telephone number listed online. And so, with an outsider’s eye, he began to ‘carve a path of sorts through the trees’ of the crimes.

Out of Thin Air’s dive into the disappearances might seem on the perfunctory side. Most of the ground has already been covered, even in English-language media, and no new suspects or witnesses are discovered. At one stage, Adeane admits to giving up on the idea of meeting one of the key suspects in deference to his mental state. ‘Although Kristjan is still alive, it was strongly recommended that he should not be approached for interview.’

The admission sharpens the sense that the book is operating outside the bounds of conventional forensic true crime. Instead, Adeane interweaves the case with a social history of Iceland — one of the weirdest places on earth — and a voguish investigation into the possible psychological damage done by police interrogation.

The former is fascinating, even if it does occasionally stray into fun-facts-for-tourists mode. Adeane takes us from the country’s founding myth — the Norwegian explorer Ingólfur Arnarson selecting Reykjavik on the basis of some floating logs — to the emergence, postwar, of a controlling nanny state, striving for independence from Denmark. Throwaway tidbits, such as Iceland’s ban on beer, and on watching TV on Thursdays, extending up to the late 1980s, show a society both in thrall to, and dislocated from, Western conventions. And it is this aspect that the Gudmunder and Geirfinnur case underlines so clearly — a collective psyche so insulated that the disappearance of a drunk 18-year-old could make front-page news, yet one also grappling with socio-economic change.

At the heart of the story is Karl Schütz, a former West German policeman who had taken on the Baader-Meinhof gang, and who was brought in to lead the investigation and modernise Icelandic detection in the process. Schütz found a police force even more hopeless than he’d imagined, and entirely unequipped for the rigours of a double homicide investigation. But in fact the joke turned out to be very much on Schütz himself — who arrived at the wrong conclusion with extraordinary German efficiency.

To do so, he had the suspects go over their ‘confessions’ so many times, with so many permutations, that he was eventually able to draw a snaking line of coalescence between the imagined realities of all the different parties. The question of forced or misled confession was explored recently in Netflix’s popular series, Making a Murderer, in which a vulnerable young man with learning difficulties was pushed by police into affirming a version of events that they themselves were presenting. The same happened in Iceland’s police cells in the 1970s. But now that reports of police brutality, coercive interviewing and political interference have become almost commonplace, it is the book’s central question that remains most puzzling. How was it that the population and police force of Iceland became gripped by a conspiracy theory that would be considered outlandish even by the standards of the dark net?

The title Out of Thin Air seems consciously to evoke Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, one of the great pieces of modern travel writing. And Adeane’s book does explore a landscape almost as alien as the slopes of Everest. Whether the analysis seems sufficiently profound will depend on the reader’s interest in true crime — because, as Adeane himself puts it, ‘there is a lack at the heart of this story’. But as Iceland, a craggy rock in the inhospitable Atlantic, becomes an increasingly popular holiday destination, Out of Thin Air offers a compelling insight into how, as David Attenborough might say, life has flourished there against the odds.

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