Friday, June 29, 2007

Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

In August we are going to Iceland for a vacation. When we tell people of our plans, their responses range from incredulous (“Do they have hotels there?”) to envious (“Oooo I’ve always wanted to go there.”) Our friend Jeannie’s response was even better: “Oh, I just read a really good book that takes place there!” Thus it was with great interest that I borrowed her copy of Jar City, a detective novel that takes place in Reykjavik.

Jar City has much in common with other Scandinavian and Northern European detective fare. It’s cold, raining, and dark, and some people are depressed. Others are interested in where they can get the latest German wide-screen televisions. The cops are laconic, and slow to engage. But Jar City has its own unique POV; Reykjavik lacks even the minimal amount of crime that occurs in Stockholm or Amsterdam, for example. With an annual murder rate in the single digits (and some years none at all), the cops have reason to move slowly. According to Detective Sigurder Oli (official sidekick of Jar City’s protagonist, Erlendur), a typical Reykjavik murder is “squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues, or conceal the evidence.” Thus the police are baffled by the seemingly random murder of an old truck driver in his basement apartment.

Arnaldur gives the impression that most Reykjavik murders are solved by the cops just asking around. This one is harder though, and in the end involves exhumed bodies, mysterious genetic diseases and decades old rape and police corruption charges. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the giant genetic experiment that is Iceland. Isolated and inbred, Iceland’s population provides ideal material for genetic research. The entire population is being added to a database that tracks diseases and other hereditary characteristics back through scores of generations. Some details of this real project have made their way into Jar City.

According to Arnaldur, while English-language crime novels have been popular in Iceland for years, there was no tradition of Icelandic detective fiction before he wrote his first novel featuring Erlendur. He’s written several books since then; right now two others besides Jar City are available in English: Voices, and Silence of the Grave.

(Book 27, 2007)

3 comments:

Susan Balée said...

Lucky Becky! I'd love to go to Iceland. There are some nice views of it in the HBO/BBC movie "The Girl in the Cafe." That's a lovely little movie starring my favorite actor, Bill Nighy, and the wonderful Scots actress Kelly Macdonald.

Maxine said...

I enjoyed this book but was frustrated by the fact that the solution depended on someone cracking a double-blind code, which is by definition impossible, as no one person can know the answer to it.
I've read the next two also, and they get even better. The next one, Silence of the Grave, won the golden dagger award (the last one to do so before they disallowed translations), and the one after that, Voices, I reviewed for Euro Crime.
I liked The Girl in the Cafe, too.
Via "Another 52 books" blog, which isn't posting much at the moment, but whose author is Icelandic, a movie has been recently made of Jar City and shown there. I hope it gets a showing in the US and UK.

Becky said...

Susan and Maxine, I saw that movie, The Girl in the Cafe. I liked it a lot. Maxine, I guess I was too unsophisticated to pick up that double-blind code problem. I missed that completely. That is the kind of thing that can irritate me too. But I'm glad to hear that you liked his other books. He's put me in the mood for more hard-boiled detective fiction; I've just started a John Harvey book.

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