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)