Jar City by Arnaldur Indrioason: A review

Jar CityJar City by Arnaldur Indriðason
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Continuing with my survey of Scandinavian mystery writers, I have now encountered Arnaldur Indrioason. He writes a series set in Reykjavik, Iceland, featuring a detective of the Reykjavik police named Erlendur. Some have compared his writing and his main character to the style of Henning Mankell and his Inspector Kurt Wallander. Certainly, they are both morose characters and share some similar family history.

Erlendur has a failed marriage and two, now grown, children. He and his wife separated when the children were young and, from then on, he seems to have been mostly absent from their lives. Now his son, who has had problems, is off somewhere doing his own thing and perhaps getting his life together. His daughter, who is the younger of the two, seems to have a totally messed up life - problems with drugs, harassed by drug dealers to whom she owes money, and now pregnant. She turns up on Erlendur's doorstep and is present off and on throughout the book. Erlendur in turn worries about her and explodes in anger at her.

In fact, this seems to be a feature of his personality. He's often seen exploding in anger, usually for no good reason that I can discern. He doesn't seem very professional in his relationships with co-workers or in dealing with those whom he interviews during the investigation. Is this an Icelandic thing?

Iceland, indeed, presents a unique setting for this mystery because it is evidently a very homogenous society. It is an island, of course, and those who live there, generally speaking, can trace their Icelandic roots back many generations. Moreover, it is small enough that it feels almost like everybody is related or at least knows everybody else. The iconic six degrees of separation here might be more like three degrees.

That homogeneity is at the root of the mystery that Indrioason gives us in this first of the Erlendur series. The solution to the mystery turns out to be related to genetic diseases and the research on them conducted by Iceland's Genetic Research Centre. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a murder. A 69-year-old man is found dead in his Reykjavik basement flat. He was coshed with a heavy glass ashtray and apparently died instantly. A cryptic note proclaiming "I am HIM" is found next to the body, but its meaning is ambiguous to say the least. The only other possible clue found at the scene is a photograph of a young girl's grave and headstone. But of what significance is that?

Delving into the man's background, Erlendur and his team learn that, some forty years before, he had been accused of a brutal rape. The detective who took the complaint from the victim chose not to believe her, humiliated her, and, not surprisingly, nothing ever came of the investigation. Erlendur learns that as a result of the rape, the victim became pregnant and had a daughter - the child whose grave picture was found at the scene of the murder.

Erlendur is sure that the present murder is related to the victim's crimes of the past and as the investigators dig deeper, his suspicions are confirmed. But how to prove it and how to track down the murderer?

I had several problems with this tale. Mainly, it just never engaged my interest. I found the characters, including the main character, to be flat, cardboard figures. I didn't particularly like any of them, except perhaps the sister of that long ago rape victim. The society that was described seemed very insular, with little interest in or connection to the outside world. And I found the translation stilted and somewhat awkward to read. The story concept was an interesting one, but I just didn't feel its execution lived up to its promise.

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