Jar City by
pbk out June 04
Terrific UK debut for Harvill's new Nordic contender. Indridason is Icelandic, and in
2002 this, his fourth book featuring Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, was
named the best Nordic crime novel (a feat he was to repeat the following year).
Autumn, Reykjavík. The murder appears unpremeditated, the victim an elderly
man of seventy, no obvious signs of break-in, the weapon a handy ash-tray. No
obvious clues either apart from an incomprehensible three word note left on the body.
"A pathetic Icelandic murder" remarks Erlendur. Then other clues begin to surface,
giving substance to an apparently uneventful life for instance the discovery of a
hidden small black-and-white photograph of a cemetery headstone inscribed with the
name of a four year-old girl. As the investigation widens Erlendur and his team will
finally uncover a tale of anguish stretching back almost forty years, one with
appalling consequences in the present.
It's a fascinating plot (though an early strand may rankle with 'fair play'
devotees), brought together with great skill. There is casual crime in the area, a
psychology student runs from her wedding and disappears, pornography is discovered
on the victim's computer, allegations of a forty year-old rape turn up. The intuitive
Erlendur (like all the characters referred to throughout by his first name, an
interestingly endearing Icelandic custom) at first appears something of a cliché. He is
a stout, divorced 50, a heavy smoker living (mostly) alone on hastily assembled junk
food. But our initial impression is instantly transformed and given (literary) weight
and humanity by the early introduction of his edgy relationship with his drug-
addicted daughter Eva Lind. By comparison, the characterisation of the key members
of his team, headed by criminology graduate Sigurdur Oli and policewoman Elínborg
is sketchy (though when faced with identifying potential rape victims, Elínborg scores
a notable triumph over her American-trained male colleague). Nor does Reykjavík
register as a location in any memorable way. Just some of the problems perhaps when
earlier books in a series are ignored...
In the end however, such carping is irrelevant. It is the highly credible plot,
beautifully constructed and paced, that counts. And as the significance of the book's
title begins to emerge, and as Indridason brings his story to its powerful conclusion,
we realise how effectively he has marshalled events to support his theme.
Comparisons with the approach and social concerns of Henning Mankell are
inevitable but, dare I say it, Indridason is the better writer and, as here, ensures that
message remains subservient throughout to story, not always the case with Mankell.
And finally and movingly, it is humanity that triumphs. Don't miss this one.