Book review: Jar City, by Arnaldur Indriðason

24 12 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is a prolific Icelandic crime fiction writer and a former journalist and film critic. His work, which has won several awards including the Glass Key and the Gold Dagger, has largely focussed on the investigations of the Reykjavík detective Erlendur, and all but the first two of those novels have been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed his novels Strange Shores (the Erlendur series’ coda) and The Shadow District (the first in his ‘Reykjavík wartime mystery’ series).

JarCity

Jar City (Mýrin, 2000, translated by Bernard Scudder) is the earliest of the Erlendur novels to have appeared in English, though two prior (untranslated) novels exist, as well as three more recent sequels, so it’s more properly considered as a mid-career offering (for the detective, if not for the author). It follows Erlendur’s investigations into the fatal bashing of an elderly delivery driver Holberg during what initially appears to be a simple home invasion or attempted burglary. When it later transpires that, decades previously, the deceased had been accused (though never charged) of sexual assault by a woman who subsequently committed suicide, Erlendur starts to suspect that Holberg’s death may be the result of something more sinister than just an interrupted break-in.

Arnaldur’s writing is spare and blunt, the tone throughout the book gloomy and grey. (It seems as though it never stops raining.) Erlendur, too, is a lugubrious type, somewhat harried, somewhat pugnacious—more or less the standard Scandicrime detective, I suppose, though the characteristic substance abuse is delegated to his adult daughter Eva Lind, a drug addict who is possibly the novel’s most strongly-drawn character. The writing, though generally effective, doesn’t always hit the notes that Arnaldur’s later work achieves: there are what seemed to me a couple of unsuccessfully comic touches, and it takes some time for the plot to properly bite in. (It should be noted, though, that Icelandic crime fiction has a tendency to unfold at a somewhat slow tempo, so the pacing in this one should probably be regarded as a feature rather than a bug.) There’s little in the way of histrionics, or forced tension, or artificial suspense; the story is carried principally through its rough-grained characterisation and through intelligent, apparently well-researched plotting. It’s refreshing to note, too, that there is one significant character—Marion Briem—whose gender throughout the book (and, I have a hunch, throughout the entire Erlendur series) is kept undisclosed, a situation the other characters are broadly accepting of, so it seems of a piece with the Scandinavian reputation for progressivity (even while some of the aspects of Icelandic society depicted do seem distinctly old-fashioned). And yes, the book’s enigmatic title does get explained during the latter stages; I’ll leave that as a matter for others to discover for themselves.

All up, this is a gritty, measured procedural that chills without recourse to ostentation.

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