Interview with Monika Nordland Yndestad

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!


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.

Isdal-Corpse

(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.

isdal-woman-funeral

(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.

varg1

(Varg Vikernes.)

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

(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 …

draps

(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.

Interview with Marit Higraff, co-host of Death in Ice Valley (podcast)

This year’s best mystery/true crime podcast is, without question, Death in Ice Valley. The show is an investigation into the Isdal woman mystery (if you don’t know what it is, read on below). The show is a breath of fresh air in a “podosphere” filled with true crime shows featuring two people chatting and giggling among themselves: Death in Ice Valley features interviews, excursions into the field, and discussions with cops, locals, and other people who were actually involved in the events when they happened.

Death in Ice Valley is a collaboration between the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK and BBC World Service. It is hosted by Marit Higraff and Neil McCarthy.

Here is my interview with Marit Higraff, Norwegian investigative journalist and co-host of the podcast.

Thank you, Marit, for taking the time to talk to Books, Bullets and Bad Omens!


deathinicevalley

Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am an investigative journalist and reporter working for NRK, Norways public broadcaster. I have been working as a tv-reporter in different departments and for different programs in NRK for many years – investigative journalism is my special field. So originally, tv-journalist, lately also online and audio 😉

I am from the northern part of Norway – the land of the midnight sun – but have lived in Oslo since I started studying. Also lived 8 years in Salzburg, Austria.

I have a 15 year-old-daughter, Hannah.

image1

(Marit Higraff. Photo: Sigrid Winther)

In your own words, what is the “Isdal Woman”? What does that term refer to?

In November 1970 a woman was found dead and severely burned in a desolate valley outside of Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway.

Objects were laid out around the body, and couple of days later, the police found her two suitcases at Bergen railway station – containing lots of curious clues, like sophisticated clothes, a wig, and glasses without prescription. The most significant thing common for the suitcases and the things found at the scene: there was nothing to identify who the woman was. The labels had been cut off her clothes, and scratched off the items.

The case immediately hit the headlines in Norway. It was a mystery: who was she – and what happened to her? The newspapers called her the Isdal Woman, because of the name of the remote valley where the body was found, called “Isdalen” in Norwegian, or “Ice Valley” in English.

The police investigated intensively for some weeks, and found that the woman had been traveling a lot, and with different fake identities. But then suddenly shut down the investigation – concluding with most likely suicide. A conclusion most doubted – then, and now. Without finding her identity..

Speculation went high that she could have been a spy, as this happened in the middle of the Cold War.

And the speculations have been going on, for almost 50 years. Still today, nobody knows who this woman was, what she was doing in Norway, and how and why she died in that remote valley.

Isdal-Corpse

(police photo of the body of the Isdal woman as it was found that day. Photo: Bergen Police Archives)

When did you first hear of this case? Were you hooked immediately?

I was an early newspaper and magazine reader as a child, and I remember reading about the case. It has been in the media every know and then.

When I was asked to have a look at it a couple of years ago, it immediately triggered my curiosity and investigative tentacles. Then, when reading thousands of files, I saw the potential of the case – riddle upon riddle – and the possibility of starting a whole new investigation, based on modern methods and technology.

Would you say the Isdal woman is the number 1 most well-known unsolved mystery in Norway? Are there other mystery cases that “compete” with the Isdal woman for that title?

Well, there are some other cases – but since we started publishing our investigation 1,5 year ago this case has got very well known in Norway. Also to the younger generations. And I guess it’s the one case with the most spectacular riddles and facts.

Is there a kind of unofficial prevailing consensus in Norway regarding the woman’s identity? In other words, what is the most popular theory as to who she was and why she ended up the way she did?

There have been a lot of theories and speculations about who she was and what she was doing in Norway. During almost 50 years one of the most discussed theories has been that she was some kind of an intelligence agent or spy, because of the use of several fake identities, the content in her suitcases, and her movements.

The reason we’re discussing this case is because you are the co-host of a podcast I consider the best of 2018, Death in Ice Valley, which deals with the Isdal woman. Can you tell us about the podcast? How did it come about, how are you approaching the case, etc.

Thanks a lot for your opinion on “Death in Ice Valley”! I really appreciate that.

Me and my colleagues in the NRK-team started working on this case two years ago, and have been publishing our steps in the investigation as an online-project since autumn 2016. We were surprised to get attention abroad, as we published only in Norwegian. But, we discovered that people were following us internationally, using Google translate.

Some journalists from international media also took contact, and made stories about our investigation and the project. And then, one year ago, we were contacted by the podcast editor of the BBC World Service, Jon Manel. He saw the potential of the case, and wanted to make the investigation into a podcast-series for a world audience, in collaboration with us. In autumn 2017 me and my colleague Neil McCarthy from the BBC started the work with the podcast. Simultaneously we continued our ongoing investigation into the case.

IMG_0327

(Marit and co-host Neil McCarthy interview a police officer at the exact spot where the Isdal woman was found. Photo: Anette Berentsen / NRK)

One reason I love Death in Ice Valley (besides the intriguing case it deals with) is because, rather than just sitting in a studio and chit-chatting about an old case amongst yourselves, you actually talk to people who were involved in the Isdal woman incident: cops, witnesses, et cetera. How did you go about finding these people? Was it hard to convince them to discuss the case with you?

I am glad you say that. Because, to us it was important that we wanted to take the listeners with us out in the field. To experience places, to meet people. We wanted to be as little studio based as possible – the opposite of most podcasts. We wanted to give the audience a great listening experience, in addition to the great story, and the ongoing investigation.

To find still living witnesses, police and so, has been a challenge in this project. It all happened in 1970, so most of the witnesses are dead – senior officers in the police and so. While reading thousands of police files and documents, we thoroughly registered interesting names of different witnesses. And then had to search in the registers, if they live or are dead. Some got married, changed names, were difficult to find.

Some were really hard to find.

We ended up with a list of rather few possible interviewees still alive. I interviewed many of them for the “Norwegian” part of the project, but we expanded for the podcast, and I contacted more of them. These are mostly quite old people, and it was hard to convince them to try to speak English for a world audience. But most of them participated.

Without spoiling anything for listeners, tell us, we’re you able to dig up anything surprising in your investigation for the podcast?

Yes, definitely! We continued our ongoing investigation along the production – and it was a challenge(and long days!) to research and produce at the same time. But we found some interesting new leads along the way.

And, first of all: we knew that we need attention “out there”. This woman was not Norwegian, we know that. So, our hope was and still is, that someone out there might know something. The goal was to reach out to that person or those persons who might recognize something about the story: about an aunt, a neighbor, a woman who disappeared in 1970…

And we have gotten some very interesting leads to follow up on, from listeners.

What are you currently working on? A new podcast series, perhaps..?

Currently I am spending the summer in the Caribbean, resting and learning Spanish😊 It is a good and necessary break, after an extremely intensive year at work.

Then, after summer, there are some very interesting leads to follow up on, as said. The team will go on investigating this case, and if we get any further – which I still strongly believe – we might come back with another podcast series, Death in Ice Valley season 2..😉

Where can people keep up with your work?

Everything published in our project about the Isdal Woman – articles, videos, timeline – can be found at nrk.no/isdal

It’s in Norwegian though.

Some main articles are translated; they can be found here nrk.no/isdal.en

The podcast “Death in Ice Valley” can be found on iTunes and everywhere else you find podcasts.

My investigative work from earlier on can be found by googling me.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?

Yes.

To me, as an idealistic investigative journalist, always driven by the motivation that I want to make life better for people, want to reveal the errors and gaps in the society, and so on.. I had to ask myself many times in this project: “Why? Why am I spending years of my life – and far too many working hours – on this case? It’s a woman found dead. A concluded suicide.”

And every time I come to the same answer: because it’s a life. A human being. A family that didn’t get to know about their loved one.

I want to give her back what she lost: a name. A dignity. And perhaps justice – if someone did that to her.

And, if possible – I want to bring her home, where she belongs.

FInally, my standard questions.

Your top 3 books?

When I have time, I prefer to read crime – I’ll answer with some favorite authors:
Swedish Jan Guillou, and the Norwegian Jo Nesbø. I also love reading John Irving.

And also historical books that give me new knowledge and reveal new truths, like the unknown story of Norwegians fighting “on the wrong side” during WW2, by Eirik Veum.

Your top 3 films?

Films, the same – crime, and also romantic films;

– The Bridges of Madison County
– Titanic
– Braveheart

And some more faves, all of them old…😄

What model phone do you use?

iPhone 7