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JAR CITY by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland in the fall–it’s cold, dark, and rainy. A perfect setting for a “typical Icelandic crime” that turns out to be anything but.

Just a word of explanation at the beginning, taken from “A Note on Icelandic Names” that prefaces Jar City:  “Icelanders always address each other by first names…People are listed by their first names even in the telephone directory.”  So the following names are all first names.

Inspector Erlandur is called to investigate the murder of an elderly man after a neighbor’s young son discovers the body.  The apartment in which the victim is found is on the lower floor in a small apartment building, dark and dank.  It appears that Holberg was killed by a heavy glass ashtray being thrown at his head, not exactly a certain way to kill anyone.  As Erlandur’s assistant, Detective Sigurdur Oli comments, “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?  Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.”

But there are two strange items in the apartment.  The first is the note left on the dead man’s body:  “I Am Him.”  The second is a faded photo hidden in a drawer; it’s a headstone over a little girl’s grave with the name Audur on it and the dates 1964-1968.

When Erlandur returns home after seeing Holberg’s body, he’s surprised by a visit from his daughter.  Eva Lind is a young woman with many problems, most notably drugs.  Erlandur and Eva Lind’s mother have been divorced for many years, and he’s had very little contact with her or her brother.  She comes to her father for money, which he refuses to give her.  Then she throw out her surprise–she’s pregnant.

Simultaneously, another crime is reported at the other end of the Icelandic social order.  A bride has disappeared on her wedding day, actually from the sumptuous wedding itself, leaving only the cryptic note “He’s a monster.  What have I done?”  The bride’s parents and her new husband profess to know no reason why she should have disappeared the way she did.  But for Erlandur, this needs to take a backseat to the murder of the old man.

A little investigation shows that Holberg was not a model citizen, to put it kindly. Many years ago he was accused of raping a young woman he met at a dance.  When the woman went to the police with her accusation, a hostile police officer refused to investigate, saying she had made the whole thing up.

In the background of the crimes is the question of what it means to be a father. Can one be a father if all he did was contribute his sperm during a rape?  Can one be a father if he sexually assaults his daughter?  Can one be a father if he has little or no contact with his children because of a divorce?  Like other Nordic writers, Indridason writes about social issues that arise in his country, issues of violence and domestic problems that are world-wide.

This book was one of the novels I read for the course I took this fall entitled “A Sense of Place:  Murder Mysteries ‘Round the World.” Jar City was written with an incredible sense of place.  The city of Reykjavik and the country of Iceland are brought fully to life.  It’s a place of great homogeneity, but it’s filled with secrets.  It’s not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is so beautifully written that it’s worth reading past the violence to delve into the culture of a country that is unfamiliar to many of us.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason at various web sites.

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