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Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason is the first novel in his Reykjavik Murder Mystery series. I had read the fourth (The Draining Lake ) previously so I don't think it necessary to read them in order.
Our protagonist is a chap called Erlendur (all names are Christian names as the Icelandics don't use surnames like most of us do) who is a detective with the Reykjavik Police. Like in a lot characters in of detective fiction these days, he is divorced with a difficult relationship with his children. In this case, Erlendur and his colleagues are investigating the death of a man killed in his home. Looking into the victim's past, it would seem that he was far from an innocent victim, so was someone from his murky past responsible? For a while Erlendur seemed to be going in strange directions, pursuing relatives of a long-dead child, whilst supposedly investigating the murder of one of the city's less upstanding citizens in what is seemingly a break-in gone wrong with perhaps one or two clues to the contrary. . Thankfully, eventually the story picked up pace and we discovered an interesting, dark side to Reykjavik,where crime is solved slowly through investigation and lots of questioning.
I enjoyed the book in the end but it isn't one of the punchiest, fast paced thrillers some crime fiction can be. It is just about a crime and a mystery, there is no tearing about the city waving guns, and saving the world. Whilst I liked the detection and crime solving aspect, I would have liked some more red herrings to make it harder to guess the outcome and make the book more exciting that way, as whilst the plot was interesting and original, it was not exciting or particularly gripping..
I would still recommend this book for crime fiction fans and would also read other books the same author.
I don't often read crime novels, although I do when the mood comes across me. Mostly I read books which are either most definitely not set in the real world such as science fantasy or the ridiculously depressing books which tend to be closer to biographies. But I'd read quite a few reviews of this particular author, both here and in other places and so I thought it worth a shot. Particularly as I was looking at buying books for my ski-ing holiday (yes, it has taken me this long to finally start writing the reviews up!). I will point out that I took approximately fifteen books on my ski-ing holiday and I managed to get through a large percentage of them (Even more impressively and somewhat surprisingly; I did manage to get some ski-ing in!). A large percentage of them were bought from reviews either here or elsewhere, as there's no better place to try something different than on holiday, but it does mean that the bunch was fairly varied, as was my reception to them.
This isn't an author I'd come across before, but considering I don't tend to delve too much into this section of fiction that is possibly not surprising. On the other hand, neither had my foster mother, which is more surprising as she has been an avid fan of crime fiction for many years. So as a quick background, Arnaldur Indridsaon is an Icelandic writer of crime fiction; he has repeatedly proved to be a very popular writer in Iceland for several years. He worked as a journalist and a critic for a long time before he first started writing crime novels but his first book Sons of Dust was published in 1997 and was the first in the Detective Erlendur series, which have become his main set of novels and also what series this particular novel is in. This series is a constant best seller across Europe and has won numerous awards, along with the fact that his novels have been published in twenty six countries and translated into various languages.
Now, usually I would start by talking about the plot, but for this particular book I'm taking the unusual step of writing about the language use first. This is purely because this was my main issue with the book and I believe it impacted severely on my ability to enjoy the book. For this reason alone I think it's important enough to break my cardinal rule of reviewing...and as a creature of habit that takes some doing.Neither the plot nor the sub plot, which I will go into in a bit, were in any way bad but the way in which they have been written irritated me. It seemed clunky and without co-ordination. There was absolutely no subtlety to it. The entire way through the novel you were being hit by fact after fact after fact, without much in the way of the fluffing that actually makes an enjoyable read. There seemed to be a lack of emotion, and it completely failed to make me feel anything for the characters. Even in what should have been a thoroughly emotive and angry rant from Erlendur to his daughter it comes out wrong. It ends up as a rather blunt series of short sentences and questions that don't quite fit together, and this completely ruins the moment. The entire novel just appeared to be stilted and that actually impacted not only on my enjoyment of the novel, but also on my understanding of the novel as I kept losing what on earth was going on due to the bluntness of it.
Now, if I'm honest here I don't know who to blame; the author or the translator. You see, Arnaldur Indridason originally wrote the novel in Icelandic, which is where the novel is set, but it has been translated into English by Bernard Scudder. Perhaps it would read better in its natural language or even a language closer to it, as I know some languages translate much better into certain languages than others dependant on how closely related they are. Unfortunately I really don't know as English is the only language I can speak and read, so I'd need someone with another language to inform me on this. Perhaps in Icelandic there would be a sense of humour and movement through the novel, or maybe it is the same in Icelandic, or maybe it's just an idiosyncrasy of me that I look for this in a novel.
This peeved me enough to ensure that I definitely can't recommend the book.
So moving onto what logically should have have been at the beginning of this review, the plot. Well, a 69 year old named Hoberg is found dead in his home, presumed murdered. The only clues are a cryptic note left on the body ad a photograph of a four year old grave. Not much to go on really and Detective Erlendur doesn't know where to start. Not mysterious enough for you? Well, there's more. You see Detective Erlendur soon finds out that Hoberg has a rather sinister past and although he was never convicted he was accused of one of the worst crimes a man can commit. Was he guilty, and has the past simply come back to haunt him with him getting his just desserts? Or is it something deeper, something even more sinister?
In the midst of this ongoing investigation Erlendur is desperately trying to build a relationship with his wayward, somewhat off-the-wall daughter. He knows she is deeply unhappy, he knows she takes drugs and he knows she's self destructive. What he doesn't know or understand is why, or for that matter what he can do to try to help her. But when he's embroiled in a case involving the death of a four year old child, her attitude towards life seems selfish and inappropriate to him. So, to come to terms with her and her views on life, he needs to come to terms first with himself and the case he is currently working on. But that may take more effort than he is banking on.
The plot truly picks up pace in the last quarter of the book where Detective Erlendur slowly puts the pieces together. I won't say anymore about the plot for fear of spoilers but it does become more dark and mysterious and it's difficult to anticipate what's coming next.
Well, it was ok. And it could have been fantastic. Unfortunately the language use and style really it me off. To me the fact that the language was so unsentimental and blunt stopped me from bonding with any of the characters, and with my personal background at the very least I should have had some sense of connection with Erlendur's daughter. Instead I just didn't care what on earth happened to them and I never had a sense of getting to know them. An example would be the health scare that Erlendur is having throughout the novel. Now usually if I'm attached to a character I'd be concerned for them and desperately rooting for them, but in this I was completely and utterly indifferent. I just couldn't care less. Even the characters who seem to be there for the sole purpose of gaining your sympathy and causing you to fear for their well-being, just...don't...
There is nothing wrong with the plot; it has the puzzle, the mystery, the conclusion, the sub-plot and the darkness that should make for an absolutely fantastic crime novel, and for that matter a fantastic thriller. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the characters; they do what they are meant to do and I can see their purpose. I just struggled to get through it - the only thing that kept me going was the fact that it's a fairly short book and I wanted to be able to write this 't review! My issues with the book probably weren't helped by the fact that I struggled with many of the character names; I was nearly at the end of the book before I worked out who was who, and even then I kept forgetting people. Perhaps this would have made a slightly easier read if at the same time as translating the novel they Anglicised the names to make it slightly easier on the average idiot person like me.
Perhaps it would have been better in Icelandic, or possibly in any language other than English, but I was left disappointed and glad that I hadn't paid full price for it. Maybe Icelandic just doesn't translate well into English...
On the other hand, I gave this to my foster mother immediately after reading it and she quite enjoyed it. She didn't think it was the best book around but the language use didn't seem to irritate her so much. She found that the plot made up for it as the novel is very well planned. In turn she's lent it to her mother, who will in turn lend it to someone else, so if I'm lucky I might hear feed back on it from them and will be able to update this. So I guess it's a matter of opinion, but I know that I won't be buying another book by this author again. But at least someone enjoyed it which makes it worth while.
Title: Jar City
Author: Arnaldur Indridason
Series: Reykjavik Murder Mysteries
Pages: 352 (paperback)
Price: £3.05 from Amazon at time of writing or £7.99 RRP
Personally, I wouldn't recommend it in English. And unless I learn another language to a standard where I'm able to read novels, I certainly won't be buying any more from Indridason. I can't comment on how good the original is, but I certainly wasn't impressed with the translated version which I read.
"A missing person returning a whole generation later. When people disappear in Iceland it's always for good. No-one ever comes back after an absence of more than twenty five years. Never."