Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason

Yesterday I finished reading Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason, originally published in the UK as 'Tainted Blood'.

Yes, yes, I know - another Nordic writer. I've reviewed a lot of them lately. But I thoroughly enjoyed Jar City, which is a dark murder mystery set in Iceland and with an incredibly gloomy hero in Erlendur, a Reykjavik police inspector who spends most of his evenings reading true-life stories of the many people who have died of exposure in Iceland's mountain winters until he falls asleep in his chair. Erlendur's almost relentless pessimism could have made him a rather unsympathetic, depressing lead character, but Indriðason (or Arnaldur, as I should call him, as Icelandic people are always known by their first names and not their patronymic surnames) cleverly balances Erlendur's old-school weariness by giving him two bright, efficient younger colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, who provide an excellent counterpoint to their boss. The mysterious Marion Briem, Erlendur's former colleague and mentor whose gender is never revealed (and which Erlendur claims not to know himself) is a fascinating and immensely original supporting character.

Arnaldur has said that when he writes, he always keeps in mind the Norse sagas, and their remarkable economy with words. Arnaldur, I think, certainly succeeds in that respect - his prose is spare and well-paced, very clear, very matter-of-fact, and extremely effective. Not a word is wasted. The conclusion of the mystery is bleak, almost fatalistic, and is well-suited to Arnaldur's style. The plot, in fact, is fairly straightforward - the mystery unfolds, gradually, and is solved - but the atmosphere, the 'feel', of this novel is, I think, unique among crime novels and peculiarly Icelandic. The plot relies partly on the small size of Iceland's population, and the notoriously wet, grim autumn weather, the stoicism of the people and the rapid changes Iceland has undergone as a nation over the last 50 years are all equally important, despite a (deliberate?) lack of local colour. The Iceland of Jar City is a long way from the Iceland of the tourist brochures, and yet, it still has a uniquely Icelandic atmosphere that pervades the novel from start to finish.

For those who like a dark, desolate and utterly unwhimsical (but still strangely wistful) crime novel, Jar City is highly recommended. I will certainly be seeking out more of Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlendur books. Jar City has also been filmed in Iceland, by the way - I've moved it straight to the top of my LoveFilm rental list.

I really do believe that Nordic and British crime writers are by far the best in the world, and I've no idea why that is. Perhaps it's because we share a tendency to extreme pragmatism and an innate pessimism... either that, or writing mysteries just gives us something do when it's pitch-black by 4pm during winter.


  1. It does sound very good, but my pile has grown beyond reason. Still, I'll put it on my Amazon wish-list.

    It sounds very atmospheric.

    Recently, I heard a writer lament that they'd never be able to write Gothic horror because they can't write atmosphere, ever. And I thought... isn't all writing partly about the atmosphere? Shouldn't you feel the atmosphere when you read it? Maybe I'm wrong. I'm wrong about most things these days.

  2. Yesterday I ran across an old schoolmate of mine. It was the strangest sensation, I came walking on a narrow alley in town, leading my bike, helmet on my head. She was banking some money through one of those whole-in-a-wall-thingies. She turned around and looked incredibly much like her mother, I was moved 25 years back in time and I sort of just stopped. She looked equally stunned and then she laughed and said: "I didn´t recognize you! You look so old!" We had to laugh. Until we almost cried. It was the most liberating feeling and it was so much fun talking to her. Roots, I tell you, I used to take them for granted but they are not to be underestimated.

    I´m thinking if (when!) I ever meet you, I´ll ask you not to wear your glasses, you´ll see me as smooth and pretty =)

  3. RSBohn: the odd thing about Jar City is that it manages to conjure up an atmosphere without ever really describing the surroundings. The atmosphere (which is very gloomy, I must say) comes almost entirely from the plot and the lead character.

    Asuqi: yes, one of the positives of poor eyesight is that everyone looks much less lined and blemished, LOL! Sometimes it's a bit depressing when I put my glasses on and see everyone in sharp focus. ;-)


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