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Book review: The Reykjavik Confessions

Updated: Jun 8

Two unsolved murders which happened in 1970s Iceland are the subject for Simon Cox's diligently researched book, The Reykjavik Confessions. This is the kind of book it is all too easy to become immersed in, and is therefore a must read for any armchair detective.


On a freezing cold January night in 1974 a young man disappears. Suspicions fall upon a certain Saevar, his girlfriend Erla and a circle of ne'er-do-well petty criminals whom gravitate around the couple. A couple of years later another man disappears into the endless Icelandic gloom. Reading this book will certainly make you shiver - in more ways than one.


Long since a target for the local police, braggart Saevar soon finds himself in solitary confinement under intense police pressure to confess. But it's the fragile Erla who the police correctly identify as the weak link, and the young mother duly confesses to both crimes implicating her lover and several other individuals in the disappearances.


It is astonishing to learn of the psychological duress the suspects underwent in mid 1970s Iceland. Kept in solitary confinement for months - in some instances years - and subjected to intense pressure, is it any wonder the suspects cracked?


Aided by prison diaries and interviews with Erla and others, Cox's book meticulously charts a nightmare series of events. The Icelandic justice system does not come out of this exactly smelling of roses. Due process seems to have been an alien concept back then. It reminds one of some sort of Dirty Harry film in which hunches and gut instinct overrides procedure. Thing is, Dirty Harry was always proved right . . .


To be fair to Cox, for the most part of the book he remains a detached observer, faithfully chronicling the many twists and turns in this extraordinary narrative - not the easiest of tasks one assumes.


After a tortuous enquiry lasting several years, the 'Reykjavik six' were found guilty of both murders and sentenced to various prison terms. Very usefully, the final part of the book deals with the fate of the alleged offenders upon their releases. For example, Cox meets up with Erla and also has interactions with various actors from the drama such as a prison guard and one of the accused, long since released and having become a man of the church.


At this late stage of the book, Cox throws a rather large bombshell into the mix. For perhaps the first time it becomes apparent that the author steadfastly believes in the innocence of Saevar and his co-accused - a testament to objectivity if nothing else.


For it transpires that the real killers of the first murder victim have since been located. Saevar, Erla and friends had succumbed to what is known as false testimony - a psychological phenomenon in which people can, under, certain circumstances, construct false realities e.g. confessing to murder when they are innocent. And yet . . .


Cox introduces this bombshell in just a single sentence - a throwaway line almost, tucked away right at the end of the book. The first murder victim had been hit by a car while walking home one icy night. And herein lies the major weakness of this book. As far as the case is concerned here is a sensational development, one that is delivered in a matter of fact way, not much more than a single sentence.


Questions arise: what did the hit-and-run drivers do with the body? If it was an accident, why would they hide the body of what may have been a drunk teenager staggering into the dark road? While the last thing the reader wants at this stage is another book, we certainly require some explanation . . .


Were the hit and run drivers charged? How did they plead? Presumably they knew all about the injustices borne my Saevar and Erla? Frustration. But by this point of the book Mr Cox seems only concerned with the innocence of the original six.


What then of the second murder the six were charged with? Nothing more is said about the complex Keflavik case. It’s left hanging in the air. Are the suspects innocent of one crime, but guilty of another? Alas, the book does not consider this very real possibility. The author has made up his mind: The Reykjavik six suffered a gross miscarriage of justice.


As for me, I'm not that convinced. Having read the various confessions with an open mind and considered the police methods, I don’t share Mr Cox's conclusions. The main characters - Saevar and Erla - come across as highly unsympathetic characters. With their history of petty crime and testimonies that change by the day, honesty and integrity seem sorely lacking.


The Reykjavik Confessions is a competent account of an intriguing murder mystery, but one in which the final jigsaw pieces still feel as if they are missing.