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‘Jar City’ is the award-winning first book in a series of Icelandic crime novels
by Arnaldur Indridason. Located within the genre of police procedural, ‘Jar
City’ offers English language readers a fairly traditional crime scenario. What
makes this and other foreign-language crime novels so interesting is their
ability to transplant the reader into another country and culture, not as a
tourist, but as a temporary resident. Because crime is linked to social
problems, such books also offer a glimpse into the different issues that affect
different communities, but perhaps more importantly, the problems that are
universal, that unite human societies wherever they’re located on the planet.
As it happens, Iceland is pretty close to the UK, both geographically and in terms of climate. It rains a lot in this book, and the sun hasn’t been seen for days, hidden as it is behind grey clouds. A 69 year old man has been found murdered in his Reykjavik flat, hit on the head with a heavy glass ashtray. The initial suspicion is that he was simply the victim of a robbery. But Erlendur, the detective, finds himself exploring other avenues of enquiry, as his colleagues look on in bemusement. To them it’s a simple enough case. To Erlendur, it’s something else.
You learn quite a few things about Iceland reading this novel. For example, it’s common to use first names there, even in the telephone directory. It’s also a country where killers are usually pretty stupid, if Erlendur and his police colleagues are to believed. In fact, murders don’t happen very often, and the murder of the old man is anything but stupid. A mysterious message is left at the scene of the crime. Erlendur’s quest takes him back nearly forty years as he investigates the deceased’s past, and the possibility that he was responsible for at least two brutal rapes. A look at his computer hard drive reveals thousands of pornographic downloads. As the investigation proceeds, it becomes clearer that the victim was a pretty nasty individual, leading to the likelihood of a revenge killing of some sort. In addition to the rapes, a former friend of the dead man has been missing for over twenty-five years. The trail leads to a child’s grave.
Erlendur is a typical crime novel detective - fiftyish, shambolic, divorced, with children who barely speak to him, and the oncoming signs of ill health. He calls to mind the likes of Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and Ian Rankin’s Rebus. For those who like their crime novels to stay within familiar turf, ‘Jar City’ is the ideal read. It’s not that there’s no twists and turns in the novel. But it hardly kicks against the traces of traditional crime. It does however offer its own particular ingredients - the city of Reykjavik, the culture of Iceland (which frankly is very much like Scandinavia and Scotland - they even have haggis and pebble dash houses). This is a culture which is both familiar and a little different, and that ought to appeal to the less adventurous readers of police procedurals who might otherwise be reluctant to read foreign language translations out of a fear of massive culture shock.
The novel’s plot rests on a very real and controversial medical and scientific project that was announced some years ago and which has been put into effect in Iceland. The title, however, rests on the practice of organ removal, and the collection of such organs in jars which were kept in rooms known as ‘Jar City.’ Some of the scandals of the UK’s health service, with respect to organ removal, find their counterpart in Iceland, though the country seems a little more lax about these things even now, if the book is to be believed. Iceland is also fairly lax on the matter of punishment. A separate investigation of a missing person leads to the discovery that a young woman has been sexually abused by her father since an early age, and ran away when he tried it on at her wedding. She’s reluctant to bring charges because he’d only get a few months imprisonment at most, assuming his crimes could even be proved. One of the issues that comes up in the book is the difficulty of reporting sexual crimes. But it would appear that while things have changed somewhat in forty years, they haven’t changed nearly enough.
In the novel, Indridason sets up the threads not only of the ‘Jar City’ plot, but of the series as a whole. There’s a character, for example, whose sex is never revealed. Even when we think we know, it’s left ambiguous, and it’s likely that this character, a friend of Erlendur’s, will appear in other books of the series. Then there’s the relationship he has with his drug-addicted daughter. She’s a young woman hopelessly addicted to heroin, pregnant, and she doesn’t make a pretty sight with her missing teeth and general wasted condition. By the end of the book she’s determined to get off the drugs for the sake of her baby, but only time and another book or two will reveal whether she’s successful. His son doesn’t appear at all, but will no doubt turn up at some point.
‘Jar City’ is an entertaining book that moves along very fast. It’s an easy read, and favours dialogue and pace over description or long introverted passages. It would be a mistake though to pass it off as a light read. There are serious issues here, and the book pulls the reader in very quickly. It doesn’t have the density of Mankell’s Swedish novels, nor the slightly more philosophical leanings of Norwegian, Pernille Rygg, though Rygg’s novels are perhaps more comparable in size. For anyone looking for other Scandinavian crime novels, there’s also Karen Fossum, Liza Marklund and others.
Reproduced with permission
Kara Kellar Bell is a film and media graduate from the West of Scotland, with a passion for European novels, French films, silent cinema, and Brazilian music (everything from Daniela Mercury and other pop stars through to bossa nova). As a writer, she likes to have room to move around creatively, so she’s not located in one genre. She writes realism and also stories of a more fantastic nature, usually grounded to some extent in the real world. She also takes delight in writing across the sexual spectrum, and as a bisexual, considers it important to remind people that things are not always black and white, either/or, in sexuality or in gender. For a selection of Kara’s writing on the Showcase section of this site, click here
Reviewed by: Kara Kellar Bell
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