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Jar City (Reykjavik Murder Mysteries 1) Paperback – 7 May 2009
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"A chilling read" (The Times)
"Highly recommended...thoroughly gripping...impressively moving" (Time Out)
"A chilling Icelandic saga of the DNA age. This careful, sparsely-written book operates at a deeper level than most crime fiction" (Independent)
'A fascinating window on an unfamiliar world as well as an original and puzzling mystery' - Val McDermidSee all Product description
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Top customer reviews
We meet Erlendur as he is called in to investigate the apparent murder of an elderly man in Reykjavik. It doesn't take long for the police to discover that the old man was a nasty character who had been accused of rape almost 40 years ago. With little to go on, other than the possibility that it was a random break-in gone wrong, Erlendur leads his team deep into the past, to try and uncover who might have had a motive for killing the old man. The further they dig, the more nasty secrets they uncover, and the more they must engage in very uncomfortable interviews that dredge up hidden pain. The plot and solution hinge on an aspect of Icelandic society that is rather unique, and it's nice to see the author taking advantage of this to good effect. Another subplot (which is rather extraneous) involves a runaway bride, and meanwhile, Erlendur must also try to deal with his drug addict daughter who flits in and out of his life. Their relationship is quite interesting, and possibly the most compelling reason to seek out the next book in the series (Silence of the Grave).
In terms of supporting characters, Erlendur's two main colleagues fail to leave much of an impression: there's the yuppie Sigurdur Óli, and Elínborg, whose main trait is that she's a woman. Hopefully they will be developed a good deal more in subsequent books, as will Erlendur's mysterious mentor Marion. Having been to Iceland for a few days several years ago, I certainly recognized the bleak weather and its constant presence in the lives of the characters. However, it would have been nice to get a little more description of Reykjavik, which is a very interesting looking place, and its people. There's not a lot of local color, and the result is a setting that is at times rather anonymous. The overall tone of the book is somewhat sad and bleak. Overall, an solid and interesting debut, but not anything that's going to blow you away.
October in Reykjavik accompanied by relentless rain and Detective Erlendur and his two colleagues, Sigurdur Óli and female Elínborg find themselves dispatched to a sixty-nine-year-old man's basement flat located in the district of Nordurmyri. On first impressions it appears a senseless murder of an elderly man, Holberg, with the blood smattered glass ashtray the weapon of choice. With the door left wide open and the cryptic hand written note, 'I am HIM', left atop of the body the perpetrator offers a telling insight into a murderer's mindset, frustratingly it takes until just under half-way through the novel before these three words are spelt out to readers. Neighbours offer no obvious ideas but colleague, Hilmar, mentions Holberg's anxiety surrounding a series of recent phone calls to his home. It soon turns out that the victim was no model citizen being charged with rape but never convicted in 1963 and with a stash of hard-core porn videos stored on his computer hard drive. With very few personal effects in the flat the discovery of a black and white and somewhat faded photo of a child's grave in wintertime is found slipped beneath the bottom of a locked drawer with a headstone bearing the inscription "Audur (1964-68). Erlendur believes the note suggests some loaded motive and the possibility of a relationship or connection between perpetrator and victim. As he re-examines the original rape claim made by the mother of Audur he soon finds that the investigation was mishandled and in tune with the prevailing tendency of the era to believe the male rather than the female party. The glimpses portraying the original rape investigation of Kolbrún and the insensitive handling by the police does nothing to aid Erlendur he is given a flea in the ear by the now deceased Kolbrún's sister, Elín, when he dares to pursue the question of Audur's paternity. Was Audur the product of rape? When he manages to find one of the men who accompanied Holberg on the evening of the rape, jail-bird Ellidi there seems little doubt of Holberg's guilt but his subsequent boasting of a similar incident with another female in Húsavík raises more questions, whilst the twenty-five-year disappearance of the other man from that night, Grétar, is more mystifying.
As Erlendur determines to verify the question of paternity of Audur he looks into the exact nature of her death at just four-years-old and reluctantly demands an exhumation and second autopsy but is confounded by the discovery of a missing organ. Simultaneously pursuing the search for another victim of the despicable Holberg, Detective Erlendur and his team find themselves led to the Genetic Research Centre and increasingly looking back to the specifics of Audur's death. Could Audur provide the answer to this curious mystery? It isn't all plain sailing for Erlendur as he counters the claims of his two colleagues that they cannot see where his stubborn and dogged focus on the matter is headed, but with his experience, Detective Erlendur is a match for anyone.
The slightly more light-hearted and off-record probing regarding a bride, Dísa Rós, who has upped and fled the marital home is of secondary concern to Erlendur, but at his ex-wife's behest he goes to see her anxious parents and the groom. His dismay at what he discovers once again comes down to the age old problem of the mistakes of the past coming full circle and has ominous echoes of the murder investigation at hand.
An added pleasure of a throughly convincing police procedural over and above the empathetic and thoughtful handling of the investigators was the Icelandic details, from the use of first names throughout the police hierarchy through to the idiosyncratic genetics programme which allows familial relations to be traced, both within hospitals and within the judicial system. Whilst the murder under investigation doesn't overly stretch the boundaries of a police procedural novel, Jar City is a well-crafted novel, but perhaps somewhat too linear in the rather straightforward progression from one question to the next. If anything, this level of simplicity is somewhat far-fetched, but this style does make for a clever analysis of the often devastating repercussions of the scars of the past. The sardonically humorous undertone is weaved throughout the novel and I look forward to the discovery of another gripping must read series for fans of Nordic noir crime.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)