Following a hot lead from Mrs Peabody’s blog I have undertaken my first experience of volcano-free Icelandic crime (well, outside of banking …) and can’t recommend the experience highly enough.
JAR CITY is the first in a series of books featuring police detective Erlendur. The setting in 2001 was meant to be marginally ahead of the times as this was originally published the year before, but the English translation dates back to 2004 anyway (which could do with some improved proof reading incidentally). The references to the internet and DNA were probably a bit more cutting edge at the time though personally I found that this tended to favour the book about a culture so removed from that of most contemporary crime novels.
Iceland is a tiny place and a full third of its population of roughly 350,000 people lives in its capital Reykjavík, which is the main setting for the novel, though it does travel around a bit, in and out of the city. An opening note explains that as befits such a small community, everyone refers to each other by first name, even in telephone directories, since surnames are mainly just patronymics. This proves to be crucial to the novel, which with intelligence and pace (an unusual combination, let’s face it) explores the theme of parental ties and legacies in and out of the gene pool.
Erlendur is an unhappy and lonely man subsisting on a diet of long hours, cigarettes and takeaway and ready-cooked meals. He is troubled by alarmingly persistent chest pains that he won’t see a doctor about, an ex-wife who loathes him still after two decades apart and a daughter he barely knows and who is a drug addict. He is handling various cases, including the death of an anonymous man who has been bashed on the head with a heavy ashtray and left with a note from the killer with a bizarre message (which in a nice touch isn’t actually reveled until about half way in). There is also a bride who vanishes during her own wedding reception who also leaves a strange message, appropriately attached to a literal ‘family tree’.
The investigation leads into crimes committed decades earlier and it becomes increasingly clear that it all ties in with fears over heredity and congenital illnesses in a community springing from an unusually small genetic resevoir. This of course relates to the real-life controversy in Iceland’s recent history (what, another one?) over its use of files on its citizen’s DNA. What is particularly fascinating though is that the ‘DeCode’ scandal (see the company website here), which followed the decision in 1999 to commercialise the DNA data in the country’s national health database, didn’t really break until several years after the novel’s publication. So, topical and prescient.
The redoubtable Mrs P gave the fourth book in the series a magnificent five stars and I look forward to getting there since this debut is a well plotted police procedural that really maximises its unusual setting with strong thematic and topical underpinnings that prove particularly well-integrated. Highly recommended.
The novel was also turned into a film in 2006 under its original title Myrin but available on DVD here as JAR CITY – it garnered several strong reviews on its original release.