Jar City

  • by Arnaldur Indridason
  • Thomas Dunn Books, NY
  • ISBN: 9870312340702
  • Translated by Bernard Scudder

I knew I was going to like this book from th every first paragraph when we are introduced to Erlendur Sveinsson, an inspector with the Reykjavik police department. His attitude, the weather, his reason for being in a small flat (murder) and the single clue that he finds all convey the feeling that this is a novel about futility. Our first impression about Erlendur is that he is tired, physically as well as mentally, and alone.The second impression is the sense that Erlendur is an experienced detective — that he has seen crime before and that he is not surprised at anything that the human animal can do. We get the sense that he is jaded and he seems to approach the murder with a “here we go again attitude” which we get from his actions.

He looks around the room and sees pieces of furniture in disarray — he notes how the room looks — sees the ashtray that has done the victim in — and finally he decides that he needs to check the victim’s wallet for identification, although, he already knew the victim’s name because he had seen it written above the doorbell to the flat. [Not an exact quote, but near enough.] So, he’s treating this as pretty routine — just another Icelandic murder — in other words, very amateur-ish.

But the novel just gets better.

At the beginning of the novel a single clue is found on top of the dead man’s body. Further investigation causes Erlendur and his team to go over the house for more clues as to who this man was. Their search turns up just one more clue which is stuck to the bottom of a desk drawer: an old photograph of a young girl’s grave.One of Erlendur’s team doubts its importance. The first clue was a piece of paper with the words “I am him” written on it. Certainly not much to go on.

The novel is a police procedural. There are no spectacular explosions — no gripping car chases — there are a couple of scenes in which there is some struggling, but by and large, it is police procedural and psychological toa degree. The actions and reactions of the characters have been taken into account and portrayed honestly. Essentially, what Erlendur’s team does is re-open a case that has been closed for decades.

This is the main story line of the novel, but there are others, and all of them put together make this novel complete and satisfying.Everything put together made me keep turning the pages.

Asecond major story line is that of Erlendur and his estranged family.He was once married, but for reasons that we do not discover in this book, he walked out on his wife and two children. In Jar City, Eva Lind, his 20 year old daughter shows up on his doorstep. She is a drug addict and the toll of the drugs is displayed in every aspect of her being.To complicate matters, she is pregnant. Erlender struggles with the concept of why would she do this to herself — and more importantly, why would she do this to her baby?

Through the conversations that we witness between he and Eva, we find that she is not there in his flat to just haunt him, but she is actually seeking his help. It isn’t stated anywhere — it’s something that you can hear in the words that are exchanged between them.

Her arrival there first looks to be a visit intended to make Erlendur hate himself — to tell him how much she hated him — to show him what his absence in her life had caused. But as the conversations continue and they both painfully confront each other, the attitudes soften and we get the idea that perhaps they will have a good relationship once again. As in all dysfunctional families, though, the the situation cycles: it deteriorates and then improves and back and forth like this.

There are times when we see the love that both of them have for the other, but don’t know how to express. For example, in one scene Eva has stayed the night in Erlendur’s flat, and when he wakes in the morning he finds that she is gone. He instantly decides that she is up to her old tricks and that she won’t be back until she needs money. It is then that she come through the door with some groceries in her arms and she looks like she has cleaned herself up and intends to make breakfast for him. A scene of domesticity that he hasn’t had since he was married to her mother.

In another scene we see the love he has for her when she comes home stoned from whatever drug she is using and he sits up all night with her on his lap while she sleeps it off. What both of them want is the same thing: Eva yearns for her father and wants him to be a father to her. Erlendur wants his daughter to be a daughter and he wants to be a father to her.

This story line is nearly as compelling as the primary story line.

There is a third story line that isn’t developed in detail, although there is an resolution to it.It is interesting, because it parallels the story of Erlendur and Eva Lindas well asthat of the murder story line. It is about the disappearance of a bride on her wedding day. On her wedding day, she and the groom had a dance at the reception and then she said she needed to make a trip to the ladies room and never came back.

There is a note left in this story, too, by the missing bride.By the wording of the note, all eyes areon the groom,thinking he had something to do with her disappearance.Eva helps find the bride and the whole sordid story eventually comes out: the bride’s father is involved with the reason for her disappearance.Now Erlendur never molested his daughter, but it parallels Erlendur’s relationship with Eva in that he did abandon her and that abandonment had a devastating effect on his child. We have no indication that Erlendur is thinking this way, but I think Indridason was considering this when he wrote the scenes into the book.

There are the common interactions going on between Erlendur and his two teammates. They often don’t understand why he is sending them out to follow up on leads indirections that seem to be leading them away from the primary crime. They think of him as an old man who is hard to get along with. In the end, his thought-out hunches do lead them to the resolution of the story and what tasks they grumbled about eventually came together to make a whole.

I think you’ll like this book. There are no scenes of violence — no knock-down, drag-out fights — anger is shown in the book, especially that expressed by Erlendur and his daughter toward one another — but action scenes of murder and rape are only alluded to and the reader is allowed to fill them in.

Indridason makes extensive use of the weather to get a mood of futility across to his readers. In reading the novel, we get a real sense of what Iceland is like in the winter with the seemingly constant rain and the stark landscape.

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