Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason
Translated by Bernard Scudder
Arnaldur Indriðason is one of Iceland’s foremost crime authors, having a background in journalism and freelance writing. His first novel was published in 1997, which features Detective Erlendur, in what is now a long running series. However, his first two Erlendur novels remain untranslated into English. So, by the time we reach the third novel, Jar City, Detective Erlendur and his colleagues are established characters. It was published in Iceland in 2000, and the English translation came out in 2004. Consequently, although it is the third, it’s styled as book 1 in Indriðason’s Reykjavík Murders series.
Having read and loved Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow when it was first published (see my thoughts on re-reading that book here), when I spotted an old proof copy of Jar City in a charity shop sometime between its publication and starting my blog, I picked it up. I’d not read an Icelandic novel before, indeed the only thing I had to compare with it was Desmond Bagley’s rather fun 1970 thriller Running Blind in which a retired British spy is persuaded to do a freelance job there. Jar City was my first Nordic police procedural novel: I was yet to discover the joys of reading the ground-breaking Scandi crime of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ books from the 1960s/1970s, or even Henning Mankell’s contemporary ‘Wallander’ series at this stage of my reading.
I didn’t read many contemporary crime novels at all in the mid-noughties, and frankly, I couldn’t remember much about Jar City at all except the title which had stayed with me. Time for a re-read, methinks.
The detectives are called to a flat in the Norðurmýri area of Reykjavík where the body of a 70-year-old man has been found, presumed struck on the head with a heavy glass ashtray. A cryptic three-word note has been left on the body and an old photograph of a young girl’s grave.
“Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?” asked Detective Sigurdur Oli who had entered the basement without Erlendur noticing him and was now standing beside the body.
“What?” said Erlendur, engrossed in his thoughts.
“Squalid, pointless and committee without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.”
“Yes,” said Erlendur. “A pathetic Icelandic murder.”
Looking into the murdered man’s life, Erlendur discovers that forty years ago, Holberg, the victim, was accused of rape but never convicted. Has his past come back to haunt him? Some dogged detective work is required to discover that the photo of the girl’s grave is that of Audur Kolbrún who died young, the daughter of the woman that had brought the rape charge against Holberg. Erlendur’s investigation will take him in an unexpected direction as he delves into Holberg’s nasty past, leading him to the country’s Genetic Research Centre and more disturbing revelations.
Running parallel to Erlendur’s investigation, we find out about the man himself a little, but mostly about his troubled relationship with his daughter Eva Lind. Erlendur if fiftyish, divorced, lives alone. His two children, Eva Lind and Sindri Snaer lost touch as kids, but are in contact now – but he is concerned about how they’ve turned out, Eva Lind in particular, who is a drug addict, and she turns up that evening.
Sometimes she was his little girl, snuggling up to him and purring like a cat. Sometimes she was on the brink of despair, stomping around the flat completely out of her mind, laying into him with accusations that he was a bad father for leaving her and Sindri Snaer when they were so young. She could also be coarse, and malicious and evil. But sometimes he thought she was her true self, almost normal, if indeed there is such a thing, and Erlendur felt he could talk to her like a human being.
Does she want money from him? Yes and no. She’s pregnant. She knows she needs to give up the drugs, but isn’t quite ready yet. A few days later, she turns up again, asking to stay with Erlendur while she cleans up her act. Erlendur may be grumpy and middle-aged, but it’s good to see him trying to rebuild his relationship with Eva Lind, which provides a super final paragraph to the novel.
Revisiting this novel after having read quite a few Scandi/Nordic crime novels in between, I could appreciate Erlendur’s dogged, matter of fact investigations, which are reminiscent of Martin Beck. I did like how he paused to get lost on thought on many occasions however, being brought back to the matter in hand by Sigurdur Oli, resulting in an inspiration of where to go next. Interestingly, we don’t discover what the note left on the body says until much later in the book. Also, Wikipedia tells me that the novel (and the Icelandic film made from it) are both critiques of and Icelandic gene-research company which gathers genetic information, but I’m not going to expound further on that strand in the novel to avoid spoilers.
This novel was all about the people involved, there was little of Reykjavík and environs in the text. Indriðason’s style is conversational and dialogue driven over descriptive for the most part. Apart from scenes at home between Erlendur and his daughter, we don’t get much sense about how people live, the sense of place didn’t really come over for me. That said, I am now keen to read the next in the series, Silence of the Grave, for which Indriðason won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2005.
Source: Own copy, Vintage paperback, 338 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
10 thoughts on “#NordicFINDS – Iceland Week – My Gateway Book”
I read this when it first came out… I think it was called Tainted Blood before it later reverted to its Icelandic title of Jar City. I remember seeing the film… it was pretty grim. I remember it felt like it was drained of colour.
I ended up reading every book in this series. I’d either buy them as they came out or they would be sent to me for review. I liked the way the series didn’t always have Erlunder as the central character; in some books he took a back seat and his colleagues took centre stage.
I know the author has since embarked on a new series featuring a young Erlunder but o couldn’t bring myself to read them for some reason.
As an aside, I went to Iceland in 2003 (I think) for a long weekend and it remains one of the eeriest and most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I swam in the Blue Lagoon while it was snowing! Unfortunately the mineral content in the water was so high that it wrecked my long hair and I had to get it chopped off when I returned to London because no amount of hair conditioning treatments would restore it!
‘Drained of colour’ perfect description! I definitely want to read a couple more of these. Iceland sounds such an intriguing country, I’d love to visit.
Everyone I seem to know (including of course my publishing partners) are fascinated by Iceland, but I have to be honest – that kind of eerie, volcanic, bare landscape simply does not appeal to me. I prefer lush vegetation.
There are trees and forests and lovely botanical gardens and greenhouses, too …
I really enjoyed this; I read it after I’d been to Iceland the first and second times and so I could visualise Reykjavik while I was reading it and got a lot out of that aspect. I also read all of them and have the set still, though not sure I’d re-read them. I can read more grim things in Icelandic literature than other literatures it turns out, perhaps because I’ve read a lot of sagas! https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/book-reviews-maid-in-waiting-and-jar-city/ I also couldn’t bring myself to read the young Erlunder series, I wonder why neither of us were keen!
As I think I said, I read several of the Erlunder series pre-blog, and I did like the ones I read, though I think I came to them out of order. If I recall correctly, I read this one after a few succesful ones and didn’t find this so good…
I thought I had already read this – pre-blog – but your review doesn’t ring any bells at all, so maybe I haven’t. Sounds really good.
Maybe you read the next one Silence of the Grave? That won the CWA Gold Dagger.
That might be it!
I don’t think I have read this one. All his books are very good. Always a solid story behind the murders, that could read like a fiction book in itself.