Jar City by Arnaldur Indriđason

Jar City, the first entry in the Reykjavik Thriller series, is one of the most compelling mysteries I have read in a while. I actually had to sit down, or lie down, to read this book, rather than reading it on the run, as I have read several recent books.

Jar City is written by Arnaldur Indriđason and translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. Jar City is the first translated book in the series featuring Reykjavik detective Erlendur.

This story is another excellent Scandinavian mystery, this time from Iceland. It is a well plotted, well-paced police procedural. Since Henning Mankel has ended his Kurt Wallander series, I have searched for a suitable alternative. I believe Erlendur is going to be it. Like Wallander, Erlendur has some personal issues, but they don’t distract from the mystery but enhance it. (Unlike Sara Paretsky or Marcia Muller or others I won’t name.) This style, I feel, comes closest to Chandler or Hammett – just the facts, ma’am. I could praise the Loren Estleman Amos Walker series for the same attribute, but I will refrain from getting too off topic. Erlendur’s combination of bluntness and analytical astuteness makes “Jar City” an unusually forceful and thought-provoking thriller.

An interesting factoid: in the homogeneic population of Iceland, people address each other by first names. People are even listed by their first name in the telephone directory.

Jar City has elements I have enjoyed in the Ross McDonald Lew Archer series. Inspector Erlendur discovers that many years ago the murder victim was accused, but not convicted, of rape. Did the old man’s past come back to haunt him? When Erlendur reopens this very cold case, he follows a trail of unusual forensic evidence, uncovering secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man. Jar City constructs a haunting, satisfying puzzle out of violence and chaos. The murder opens up a nest of older crimes and brooding secrets. Erlendur finds himself investigating a possible rape from 30 years before

The picture of Iceland that emerges in Jar City is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its grim poetry certainly — mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea — but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation.

The emotions at the heart of this philosophical detective story are dark and tangled, like the grisly surprises that seem to be buried under every floorboard. Jar City is icy and cerebral but also grimly and intensely alive to the physicality of murder.
I am pleased to find another author and series that meet my criteria. I already have the next two books in the series stacked up for reading.

I noticed in my reading about this book that there has been a movie made from it in Iceland. I don’t know that it is available here. However, there are plans to film it in English; unfortunately, it is supposed to be reset in New Orleans. What? You say “icy” and “cerebral” and the last place I think of is New Orleans. Why do they do these things? Is always about the money?

My solution: read the book.


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