Christy's Reviews > Jar City

Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason
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's review
Mar 26, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: mysteries, scandinavian-fiction
Read in December, 2006

Arnaldur Indriđason's Jar City is a mystery novel set in Reykjavik that plays with issues of paternity, family, and identity. Mostly, however, it's a whodunit. As such, it's a good read. But as more than that, though it gestures toward larger questions, it left me wanting more.

The jacket reviews call it a "dark, haunting novel" with an "emotionally wrought ending that caught me off guard and touched me in a way that few mystery novels do" (The Boston Globe), one that, according to Time Out London, "[culminates] in an ending that proves impressively moving." But the ending is somewhat predictable and underdeveloped. There is potential in the ending for something moving and meaningful, but it doesn't quite happen for me.

In part, the ending doesn't work for me because in this type of book, a mystery thriller that falls squarely within the limits of the genre, I expect all my mysteries solved at the end. There is one mystery in this book, though, that remains unsolved. Marion Briem, the protagonist's mentor, plays an important role in the novel. Briem provides Erlendur, the protagonist, with crucial information and occasionally points him in the next direction the investigation should take. This in and of itself is not a big deal. It's a common enough element of a mystery novel. But Marion Briem is a combination of an ungendered family name (unlike most other Icelandic names, such as Elendur Sveinnsson (Elendur, son of Sveinn) and an ambiguously gendered given name (Marion?). Gendered pronouns are carefully avoided in every discussion of Marion Briem and even physical descriptions are carefully devoid of specifically gendered information. For instance, Marion has "small, slight hands" and "a large head on what was in other respects a delicately built body" (119). And "to work with, Marion Briem was an intolerably pedantic, stringent and insufferable old bastard" (121). But this use of bastard is the only even remotely gendered reference to Marion and this is little proof when, later in the novel, Erlendur's colleague, who does not know Marion, says, "Wait a minute. Who is this Marion? What kind of name is that anyway? Is it a man or a woman?" Erlendur's reply is unnecessarily cryptic: "I sometimes wonder myself." What? This is never resolved. Clearly, there are more books following this first novel that feature Erlendur, but this kind of thing irks me. Take a minor character, create a seemingly meaningless mystery, and then never resolve it. In some ways, this feels like a cheap ploy to get the reader to buy the next book.

I do, however, like the detective protagonist, Erlendur. He is not brilliant, not inclined to great bursts of insight or intuitive leaps, instead relying on following the evidence and talking to people to crack the case. He is a loner, but he is slowly building a relationship with his grown daughter and attempting to deal with and help her deal with her drug addiction. He is a bit jaded and smokes too much, but he is not cynical or without hope. In the middle of the book, he expresses his doubt and frustration to his daughter, saying, "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing. Maybe it's best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business. Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in all this? All this filth. . . . You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled" (187-88).

Despite this doubt, he continues, because, really, what choice does he have? As one character asks at the end of the book, "Who are you if you're not yourself?" Who would Erlendur be if he were not himself, if he did not do this? To give up would be to no longer be himself. His continuation in the face of repulsion and filth reflects on the strength of his character. Erlendur would never say outright that what he does is valuable, that protecting those who need protecting, those who cannot protect themselves, is a noble thing. That would be too sentimental and self-congratulatory of him. Instead, he matter-of-factly goes about doing it. No thanks. No rest. Just what needs to be done. He has a kind of stoic strength that gains in value because it is framed by his doubt, by his uncertainty both within his job and his personal relationships, by his attempts to grow as a human being and to learn to live with his daughter and her problems.

Ultimately, this is a good book and I would like to read Indriđason's other novels, but Jar City is outdone by Henning Mankell's books in the same mode. If you feel like a good Scandinavian mystery, I recommend one of Mankell's Kurt Wallander mysteries. Wallander and Erlendur are similar types and the landscape and its impact on the tone and narrative is much the same in Sweden (where Mankell's novels are chiefly set) and Iceland, but Mankell's novels are better developed and more intense than Jar City is.
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Seosamh Many thanks for shining a light on this Marion Briem character.

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