I've never come across an Icelandic murder mystery before, and wasn't sure what to expect. But this tightly drawn police procedural turned out to be a rare treat. Reyjavik police inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is called to investigate the apparent murder of "Holberg", an elderly man found lying dead in his basement flat with his skull bashed-in. Erlendur has little to go on - Holberg led a solitary life and there were no witnesses. But an obscure three-word note apparently left behind by the murderer, and an unidentified photo of the grave of a child long since buried, lead Erlender and his CID team down a complex path of murder, rape, and, surprisingly, genetically transmitted oncological diseases. Holberg, as Erlendur partner Sigurdar Oli dryly points out, "was no model citizen."
In a setting sure to dismay The Icelandic Bureau of Tourism, "Jar City" features bleak urban settings with apartments built on swamps and more rain than "Blade Runner". Combined with a Scandinavian brand of stoic fatalism, the end result is a deeper shade of noir uncommon in standard pop fiction. Absent from "Jar City" are the annoying comic book cardboard super-characters with super model looks and Ph.D. brains quipping witty one-liners. Author Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur, the grizzled and crime-hardened cynic, leads a solitary life only a step away from the criminals he pursues, bringing to mind Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko or Ian Rankin's John Rebus. And like the best of Rankin or Smith, "Jar City" is an intelligent, skillfully crafted murder mystery, well paced, well plotted, and well read. Take a step off the well-beaten track and give this little jewel a try.
One of my major problems with many police procedurals is that the plots often go completely off the deep end and become wildly improbable messes (among Scandinavian authors, I think Henning Mankell is frequently guilty of this). So, it's somewhat refreshing to come across a relatively straightforward story like this award-winning series debut from Iceland. In it, we are introduced to Detective Inspector Erlendur, a classic 50ish, divorced, rumpled, morose, tactless, and running-to-seed character who nonetheless possesses the requisite instinct to be a top detective. Although he lacks some of the perfunctory traits often assigned to such characters (for example, he isn't a gourmand, or jazz aficionado, or anything like that), he's very much in the mold of Sejer, Rebus, Resnick, and other such policemen protagonists.
We meet Erlendur as he is called in to investigate the apparent murder of an elderly man in Reykjavik. It doesn't take long for the police to discover that the old man was a nasty character who had been accused of rape almost 40 years ago. With little to go on, other than the possibility that it was a random break-in gone wrong, Erlendur leads his team deep into the past, to try and uncover who might have had a motive for killing the old man. The further they dig, the more nasty secrets they uncover, and the more they must engage in very uncomfortable interviews that dredge up hidden pain. The plot and solution hinge on an aspect of Icelandic society that is rather unique, and it's nice to see the author taking advantage of this to good effect. Another subplot (which is rather extraneous) involves a runaway bride, and meanwhile, Erlendur must also try to deal with his drug addict daughter who flits in and out of his life. Their relationship is quite interesting, and possibly the most compelling reason to seek out the next book in the series (Silence of the Grave).
In terms of supporting characters, Erlendur's two main colleagues fail to leave much of an impression: there's the yuppie Sigurdur ?li, and El?nborg, whose main trait is that she's a woman. Hopefully they will be developed a good deal more in subsequent books, as will Erlendur's mysterious mentor Marion. Having been to Iceland for a few days several years ago, I certainly recognized the bleak weather and its constant presence in the lives of the characters. However, it would have been nice to get a little more description of Reykjavik, which is a very interesting looking place, and its people. There's not a lot of local color, and the result is a setting that is at times rather anonymous. The overall tone of the book is somewhat sad and bleak, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone who has lost a child at an early age (this is a key thread in the story). Overall, an solid and interesting debut, but not anything that's going to blow you away.
on December 8, 2006
Iceland native Arnaldur Indridason's "Jar City" is an outstanding police procedural written in a style reminiscent of the superb Scandinavian crime authors Mankell and Wahloo & Sjowall.
Indridason's protagonist Reykjavik police inspector Erlendur is summoned to investigate the bludgeoning murder of a reclusive old man named Holberg is his foul smelling basement flat. Aided by his colleagues Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg they discover a mysterious note on the corpse and a black and white photo of a gravesite.
Erlendur meticulously begins to unravel clues that enable him to gain insight into the identity of the victim. It is determined that Holberg, a truck driver had a sordid past, being accused by not convicted of rape many years ago. As Erlendur peels away more layers of Holberg's past he realizes that there are connections to other unsolved and unreported`criminal acts. Following these leads he is able through modern genetic techniques in criminology to navigate his way towards solving this atypical case.
Indridason sucessfully endows a sense of believability to his characters with a considerable degree of developement to their personnae. Eldendur is portrayed as an "everyman" not a superhero. He's a fiftyish long divorced father of two in declining health, who struggles with the fact that both of his kids are drug addicts.
Indridason creates a sense of reality in his portrayal and gives us a taste of the lifestyle in the remote confines of Iceland.
I'll say off the bat that I'm currently reading the sequel to Jar City, Silence of the Grave, and finding it pretty good. But Jar City: not so much.
Jar City isn't terrible, but it seems to me to suffer from two flaws. First, the plot is implausibly complex. The basic premise behind it--a kind of biomedical detective story--is clever enough. But the chain of evidence that leads the protagonist Erlendur ultimately to the murderer is torturous. Author Indridason himself must sense this, because he has Erlendur's subordinate cops, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, questioning the wisdom of their boss's dogged insistence on following up on flimsy clues. At the end of the day, Indridason wants to portray Erlendur as a sage cop with a good nose. But the reader, along with Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, is left incredulous.
Second, the characters never really come alive. Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli have little more than walk-on roles, and Erlendur himself, a middle-aged man riddled with regrets and angst, never quite reveals himself to the reader. At the end of the novel, the impression he leaves is visual--rumpled suit and hair, muddy shoes, etc--rather than psychological. Even his relationship with his addict (and pregnant) daughter Eva Lind never quite develops. And since what seems to drive Erlendur in this case is empathy with a long-dead little girl who was an indirect victim of a crime, you'd think that Indridason would've more fully played out the relationship between father and daughter.
Still, perhaps Indridason intends to develop his characters incrementally as the series of novels describing their adventures unfolds. And the plot of Silence of the Grave so far seems much more plausible. So it's worth sticking with Indridason a while longer.
on November 23, 2007
Okay, I paid the full fare, bought the book, and read the entire thing. This is a dreary novel, populated with one- or two-dimensional characters, with an implausible plot (two rapes and two pregnancies? Who'da guessed? Oh yeah, Erlendur). The drug-addicted, pregnant daughter is a distracting soap opera that adds little to the narrative, even as a sidelight for Erlendur's personality and life style. He is a protagonist too unappealing and too manufactured to get into.
Overall,the writing is turgid (or maybe the translation is poor...all you know is what you see). Too little is left for the reader to infer and imagine; too much is simply stated as terse fact. There is blessed little description of the place in which these events occur. I kept waiting for some broader views of the environment -- that might have made the story itself more accessible. As it stands, I'm just afraid this tale could have been set virtually anywhere. The dialog sounds like it's written by someone trying to make up dialog.
Except for some ambiguous loose ends (is the body in the cellar actually Gretar??), the ending is reasonably tidy, if you can stomach the plod that takes you to it. But the last couple of lines are simply a maudlin and heavy-handed attempt to tug at your heartstrings.
It rains in Iceland. Not a surprise, and a reasonable story element. But it rains in lots of places; rain doesn't tell you beans about Iceland per se. The novel is not "atmospheric" except for the bad weather. You'll learn essentially nothing about Iceland or its people, in any large sense, or about the local environments in which the story takes place, from this book. I thought the map at the beginning of the book would be helpful to understand the story; it wasn't. The siting of events is inconsequential to understanding the flow of the narrative.
I really, truly do not understand the enthusiasm evinced in other reviews for this book. It contains pedestrian writing and hokey plotting, and is generally unengaging, to my eye. Spend your money on other, better mysteries, better constructed and better written.
on June 5, 2010
Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is a homicide detective. He isn't as rough around the edges nor is he quite as libertarian in his approach to law enforcement but Harry Bosch has got nothing on Erlendur when it comes to toting a heavy load of psychological baggage. Long divorced at age 50, Erlendur leads a lifestyle that isn't particularly healthy. He's convinced he has heart issues but, like so many misguided men, is unwilling to go to a doctor to confirm what he is convinced will be bad news. Eva Lind, his penurious, greedy, self-centered daughter is pregnant and carries her arrogant attitude in a very large chip on her shoulder.
Erlendur is investigating the murder of Holberg, an angry old man who was accused and acquitted of rape many years earlier. The only clues are an odd note apparently left by the killer ("I am HIM") and a old photograph of a young girl's grave, misplaced, lost or hidden underneath a desk drawer. "Jar City" can't really be called suspense because there's nothing of that bone-chilling anticipation or frisson of fear that readers experience from the very best suspense thrillers. It's much more of a police procedural, a top quality and utterly compelling psychological drama that follows Erlendur, who proves himself a very skilled and intuitive detective, down a very twisted but entirely realistic trail of forensic clues to a haunting, bleak and emotional climax.
"Jar City" aside from being a first-rate mystery, also delves into important, timely issues related to privacy of medical data and the use or misuse of genetic information. (For those readers that are not aware of this, because of its limited and highly isolated gene pool, Iceland is one of the world leader's in the collection of genetic information and its susbsequent use in epidemiological research related to genetic illness.) Author Indridalson also tugs mightily on his readers' heart-strings as he develops the on-again, off-again tempestuous relationship between Erlendur and his wayward daughter.
A riveting plot, a dense psychological drama, a unique setting with a very special set of localized characteristics and tense, heartbreaking emotional moments make "Jar City" a very special debut novel that deserves a space on any mystery lover's shelves. Highly recommended.
on August 11, 2012
This is an intriguing novel, atmospherically and in its inexplicable ability to sustain the reader's interest -- despite the fact that practically everyone in it is strange, idiopathic, stilted or weird of articulation, practically autistically disconnected from reality, and committed to viewing everything generically and without depth or dimension, as though through the filter of a bad fifties cop drama. Dragnet, possibly, though without the cheeriness and empathy of Joe Friday.
Erlendur, the protagonist, is a weary, bleak, generally enervated and ineffectual police inspector wIth the emotional IQ of a dysfunctional gibbon, who always, always says and does the wrong thing in any situation in which ordinary human sensitivity is demanded. He's not remotely stupid, and he solves a complex case that calls into question issues ranging from misogynistic practices in the treatment of rape cases to the questionable ethics of the virtual "jar cities" of genetic databases, but in so doing, he ignores the obvious, passively abuses practically everyone around him with an aggressive indifference, fails to prioritize his daughter's life or his own health -- or anything that matters, really -- over the dreary details of a disproportionately comprehensive investigation, and ends by precipitating the suicide of the hapless and essentially innocent perpetrator of the original crime. And yet the story somehow gains ever more traction, and Erlendur ever greater approximation of minimal human warmth, as matters progress from parental neglect to abuse of witnesses to desecration of a child's grave to the perfectly foreseeable fatal ineffectuality of Erlendur's final attempt to avert Einar's suicide. In the dénouement, Erlendur sits with the drug-addicted, pregnant daughter he'd earlier left to the streets, eating the meat stew she's prepared and inexplicably sensitively suggesting that she name her daughter after the lost child who's the central victim of the whole drama.
Throughout, all the characters remark on how Icelandic everything is. Can you imagine saying not, "this is a typically clumsy murder," but "this is a typically clumsy, American murder?" Or it's just so American, the rainy weather today? Or I'd better take an American drive to the American supermarket? Is it a bad translation, or does the author think that everyone in Iceland is just unremittingly conscious of how Icelandic he or she is, and feels called upon constantly to remark on it? This sort of awkward, completely supererogatory, once-distanced observation goes on constantly, is committed by everybody, and gives rise to the sense that all the characters really do think they are cardboard cutouts in a minimalist screenplay by Lars Von Trier.
And yet somehow it works, and it's even emotionally and intellectually satisfying. There's just no accounting for some Nordic novels.
on February 17, 2015
Rating it a 4 star only because the subsequent ones are even better and I have to give some room to rate those a 5 star. My favorite authors of this genre are Henning Menkell, Maj Sowell, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, and of course Ruth Rendell, PD James, and the like. So I compare. Arnaldur is clearly at the top of this list and improving. Jar City is a well crafted book with a very interesting and different plot line- a murder related to a genetic disease. Erlendur, the protagonist, is a damaged person, full of guilt and anger. The characters surrounding him are very interesting, well developed, real, and just as hard to understand and predict as real human beings. I've not read anything quite like this book and author in the crime writing genre except perhaps PD James and her way of crafting a novel. Hard to put down the book. If you like Wallender, Harry Hole, Rebus, or any of the other excellent crime fiction detectives, you will find Erlendur just as good if not better.
on February 26, 2016
I actually won the newest novel written by Indrioason,"Into Oblivion", from a Goodreads First Read Giveaway. However, I did not realize the book came so late into the Erlendur series. So, liking to read an author's books from the beginning of a series I purchased myself a copy of Jar City. I'm very glad I did. The irony being that "Into Oblivion" is actually one of two prequels to Jar City.
Living in Iceland himself, this is where the author sets his location for the story. We glimpse a view of this island nation as it exists in and around the capitol city Reykjavik. Similar to the weather year round, the story is very dark and bleak. We also learn that it is the custom in Iceland that it is common to refer to people by their first names rather than using the last. This is due to the fact that Scandinavian last names, such as my name Sorensen which mean son of Soren, can lead to confusion as to whom Soren's son might be. So most of the characters in the book are referred to by first name only.
An elder man, living in a basement apartment, has been killed. He has been struck over the head with a heavy green ash tray. Whether he is the victim of murder or and an unintended crime of emotion will need to be determined. Detective Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik Police has been dispatched to the crime scene. Holberg is the name of the deceased and apparently knew his attacker as there are no apparent signs of a struggle. Upon the body of the man is a note that has a message scribbled on it and the photo of a young girl's grave is found in a night table. Now Erlendur must go to work finding out just who Holberg is and why someone might want to kill him.
Initially it is determined that Holberg is a man living a quiet life after years of driving a lorry. His upstairs neighbor has talked with Holberg only on occasion but says he was pleasant enough. Never a problem but seemed to be very lonely. So why would such a no threatening man be killed.
It is the photograph that has been found that heats up the investigation into Holberg's past and the scent of the attacker's motivation. The grave is that a young girl named Audur who died of a brain tumor at age four. Three years later Audur's mother, Kolbrun committed suicide. Upon digging deeper into Kolbrun's life it is discovered that she once accused Holberg of raping her, although charges were never filed by the police.
This is a story that flows along several differing lines of investigation and Erlendur is aided by two of his subordinates in the investigation. One line is the search for another woman that might have been raped by Holberg, another is the genetic mystery as to why Audur dies of a malignant tumor at such a young age and lastly, why did an associate of Holberg's disappear so many years ago. An associate that may have taken the photograph that has led Erlendur to Kolbrun and Audur and maybe Holberg's death.
As this is all going on Erlendur is having personal issues with his adult, drug addicted daughter. Having divorced his wife when his children were young, due to an antagonistic marriage, his daughter Eva Lind has come seeking his help. Although not fully developed, this story line gives us a view into Erlendur's personal life and may be filled out in future novels.
Peeling back the layers of an onion is an apt description of this book. Erlendur is a very methodical investigator that takes things step by step. Not allowing himself to be rushed or turned aside from a line of inquiry that his co-investigators may think is pointless. Indrioason does an excellent job, in this debut novel, of leading the reader along towards the climactic and unexpected conclusion. I believe this is the beginning to, what should become, a very good series. Scandinavian writers seem to write stories more gloomy than other writer's I have read. Being so far North and located above the Arctic Circle has a big influence in the background of stories set in many of the Scandinavian nations. Indrioason certainly allows the reader to feel the cold and bleak world in which these citizens live in. If the reader is looking for a new author to add to his/her library I would certainly recommend that the Erlendur series be given a try. And if the reader starts at the beginning they will find out what "Jar City" stands for?
on March 2, 2016
I'm giving this a 4-star rating instead of a 5-star rating simply because the genetics part of the story didn't hold my attention. But that's not the fault of the author. I just couldn't get into it. I failed to grasp the science behind the details of the genetics in this story. Which is my fault, for not being as well-informed about science as the author.
The story is rather macabre, as it has to do with digging up bodies from graves, organs stored in jars in laboratories (the "Jar City" of the title), and a case of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons. Erlendur and his team of investigators (Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli) are called upon to solve the murder of an elderly man found bludgeoned to death in his basement apartment, which, by the way, has a very funky odor. It turns out that the elderly man was a career criminal, a rapist, who was never tried for his crimes. Erlendur suspects his murder had something to do his criminal past, and sets about digging into the man's past associates. He discovers old, long-held secrets, finds a long-buried body, and meets more than a few people tortured by their past, or by their parents' past history.
I read this book in two days. I have to say, Indridason's novels hold my attention unlike anything I've read in a long time. I kept turning the pages, and I was up until 5 AM reading one night. I highly recommend this author.