Monika Nordland Yndestad is a Norwegian writer and expert on mysteries surrounding her hometown Bergen. That city is home to one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries of all time: the case of the Isdal Woman, an unidentified female found dead in the middle of a rock formation on a mountain just outside Bergen in 1970. The case is still unsolved.
Monika has written a book called Drapsmysterier fra Bergensområdet (2005), the definitive book on Bergen’s strange history.
Below is my interview with her. Thank you, Monika!
1) Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Monika N. Yndestad and I live in Bergen. I wrote my first news story in 1987. In 2007, I took a four year break from the press to teach journalism. Then I started as a publisher in a magazine. In 2013, I became an author full time. I have released three crime books. The main character is journalist Alice Bratt. I have also released three non-fiction books, among them Drapsmysterier.
2) You wrote a book about the city of Bergen’s mysteries and crimes. What inspired you to write this book?
I have always been more than average interested in mysteries. Put simply, I was a big fan of true crime long before the term was invented. In Bergen there were several old murder cases that people still talked about, even after decades. But did they remember correctly?
I decided to investigate, and spent a lot of time in the archives, both public and in the newspaper archive. It was really exciting! The first case I wrote about in the newspaper Bergensavisen was a miscarriage of justice that occurred in 1906. A father and his son were convicted of killing the neighbor. The reason for the verdict was that a psychic woman supposedly “saw” the murder. It took 43 years before they were acquitted.
3) The most internationally well-known mystery in Bergen is the “Isdal Woman”. In your own words, what is this case of “The Isdal Woman”?
The Isdal Woman is our biggest mystery. No doubt about it.
Isdal Woman was found dead in Isdalen on Sunday, November 29, 1970, almost fifty years ago. It was a family on a Sunday trip that found her in the hillside; the first to see her was a twelve-year-old girl.
Isdal woman was found at the entrance of what is called “the valley of death”. The name comes from an accident in the early 1900s when a group of skiers on the top of Ulriken Mountain took the wrong path and fell to death.
It was a horrible sight. Isdal Woman was found lying on her back over a bonfire. The body had been exposed to intense but short-lived warmth. Her hair had burned up, but remains of a blue hair loop were found. The clothes were also just some remains. There was a men’s armband watch next to the body. The clockwork had stopped at 12.32.
In her stomach a fatal dose of Fenemal sleeping tablets was found. She had swallowed between 50 and 70 tablets. The cause of death was a combination of poisoning by sleep medicine and carbon dioxide, as well as combustion.
The investigation revealed that Isdal Woman had checked out from Hotel Hordaheimen in Bergen city center on Monday 23 November around eleven. There was smoke seen in Isdalen one and a half hours later, and it was believed that was when she died. But the time frame does not quite match: it is unlikely she may have managed to get so far in such a short time. She was also at the train station, where she placed her suitcases.
The investigation showed that Isdal Woman had traveled around Norway under several names. The last month she stayed at hotels in Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim under the names: Claudia Nielsen, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Vera Jarle, Fenella Lorch and Elisabeth Leenhower. She spoke broken English but was steady in German. She was seen with men the police have never found the identity of.
Isdal Woman was 164 centimeter, 56 kilos, and probably around 30 years old. In her suitcases there where found notes written in code with letters and numbers, possibly an itinerary.
(body of the Isdal Woman. Police photo.)
4) What are the most widespread theories about her identity among the people of Bergen?
There are several theories. Last year, a documentary about her was issued claiming she was a prostitute. But there are not many who support that theory. Today, it’s mostly crime authors and journalists who care about the mystery. For most people, Isdal woman is just a term.
One possible theory is that she was an agent of Israel in search of old Nazis. This theory is used by the city’s most famous crime author, Gunnar Staalesen, in his trilogy Bergenstriologien. The books are translated into French.
Most people agree that Isdal Woman was affiliated with an organization of some kind, or was a criminal. Some believe she was a part of a fake coin league, but it is less likely than the agent theory. Remember, it was 1970. Probably the Norwegian authorities (PST) know much more than what has been revealed. The police concluded that she had committed suicide. Afterwards, only her identity has been investigated.
5) What is your own personal belief as to who she was?
I think she was an agent of some kind.
6) Some of the items related to the case are still in the police archives, such as her jawbone and personal belongings. Have you seen them personally? If so, what was it like seeing them?
No, those items were found quite recently and after I had released Drapsmysterier.
7) What is the area like where she was discovered? Is it far from downtown Bergen?
The area is about five kilometers from Bergen Railway Station, where she placed two suitcases for storage. The mountain side where she was found is steep and inaccessible and not a place for a tourist in November. Or in the summer, for that matter.
8) Do you think she intentionally walked there or was she taken there by someone else?
There are two mysteries here. Was Isdal Woman killed or did she really commit suicide alone on a mountain side? And who was she?
I do not think she committed suicide. She lived in a hotel and if the tablets really were hers, it’s illogical to leave the hotel bed, take the pills up in a mountain side and then lay on a fire.
Therefore, I do not think she was alone. She was taken into Isdalen by someone. And killed.
9) Is the police still actively investigating the case? Do you think it will be solved one day?
It is the press, including the BBC, which conducts investigations. Not the police. I do not think the case will be resolved ever, but she can still be identified. Isdal Woman is buried in a unmarked tomb. There was a police officer carrying her coffin to the grave, and a Catholic priest was used during the ceremony. Everything was documented with images that still exist. The police wanted to give the album to the family, but there was never anyone who claimed her. Now she belongs to Bergen.
(Funeral for the Isdal woman.)
10) Another famous person in Bergen’s history is Varg Vikernes, notorious metal musician who murdered a colleague in the early 90s. Is he still famous around Bergen? Do locals still talk about him?
Varg Vikernes never returned to Bergen after the release. He lives in France and the case is little discussed.
But the church fires are not completely forgotten. Recently, two framed front pages of Bergens Tidende, which an individual had collected, sold for 14.000 NOK each. The front pages showed a picture of Varg Vikernes, who confessed to burning churches.
There were a total of 40 churches and church buildings that burned down in a few years.
11) How did the murder of Euronymous happen?
Varg Vikernes had had two comrades as an alibi that he was home in the apartment in Bergen. But instead he drove to Oslo, and on Tuesday, August 10, 1992, he killed Øystein Aarseth with 23 knife cuts. Afterwards, Greven said he did not regret the murder because it was about the survival of the strongest. And he was proud to be the strongest, the one who lived.
12) What do you think was the true reason behind it?
I look at it as a broken youth’s wrongdoing.
13) In your opinion, why did the Black Metal scene happen in Norway of all places?
In the 1990s there were many good bands and good producers in Bergen that contributed to the growth of black metal. It could probably have just happened somewhere else. But it was a little funny that especially Italian students at that time began to learn Norwegian because of black metal.
(Church arsons were a notorious feature of the Black Metal days. Adherents to BM believed Christianity was unlawfully planted into Norway, and burning a church was, therefore, a strike against the Christian establishment and a celebration of Norway’s pagan past.)
14) What other mysteries from Bergen would you like the readers of this blog to know about?
Many! Did you know, for example, that the lions in front of the Norwegian parliament, a symbol of democracy, were sculpted by a man convicted of a killing in Bergen? The assassination happened not far from the place Isdal Woman was found. But it’s 120 years that separates them in time.
15) What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on my fourth crime book in the series about journalist Alice Bratt; it is scheduled to be published in the autumn of 2019. In addition, I have just established the website monikayndestad.no There I talk about books and publish true crime news.
16) Any chance of your book being translated into English?
Who knows? Cappelen Damm Agency will hopefully sell my books abroad. Maybe to Finland? Then I wont be able to read my own book …
(Monika with her book about Bergen’s mysteries. Photo: Bergens Tidende)
17) Anything I forgot to ask about that you would like to add?
Well, you can ask if it really rains as much in Bergen as people think. The answer is yes.