Jar City is a police procedural from the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indriðason, who has received several awards for his books. Although I found the plot interesting, I have several criticisms of this novel.
Within a few pages, I noticed a choppy, sometimes clumsy writing style. I saw some evidence of a poor translation, but it wasn’t clear whether this was because the translator’s English wasn’t good enough or he was translating too literally. Some idioms seemed dated, and although the translation was British, I think I read enough modern British novels to know which idioms are currently in use. For one of the many examples of what appears to be a simply bad translation, take this perhaps not literal quote (I’m writing it from memory) “the photographer must have had to bend his knees until he was very short.” In English we have a word for that. It’s called “crouching.” But there is also evidence that the writing just isn’t very good, the most noticable being a dream sequence that is one quite dreadful, long sentence.
I was unable to guess whether the poor writing was the fault of the translator or the writer. My guess is it was a combination of both.
Other problems emerge. Although Inspector Erlendur was developed as a character, all the other characters were pretty flat. I got no sense at all of the personalities of his fellow investigators, for example. What is more of a shame, I also got no sense of Iceland as a country or the Icelandic as a people (or even any individual Icelanders), which is one reason I like to read books from other countries.
What fills out the detective himself is some background about his family, his divorce, his struggles with his addicted daughter, his messiness, his sleeplessness or tendency to sleep in his clothes, and his worry about a pain in his chest. These details all seem very familiar to me, but I’m not sure whether Detective Erlendur or Kurt Wallender came first or whether either of the writers knew the other’s work, so I will say no more.
Arnaldur also plays the Christy-an trick of keeping some of the evidence to his detective for awhile. For example, the killer leaves a note on the body of the victim, but we’re not told what it says for some time. If the author was holding out for a dramatic moment, I don’t believe that attempt was successful.
My final criticism is of the detective, who seems notably stupid at times. Making the detective too busy to take care of something on time or just plain dense is a common tactic of some writers, who use it to drive up the suspense, but it just makes me angry. I want my detectives to be smarter than I am. An old woman saw the killer in her yard. When she calls the detective back, does it occur to him that she might have seen him there again? No, he is too busy interrogating someone else to take a second to call her back. In doing so, we would have missed the final scene. I’m sorry, but surely Indriðason could have handled that less clumsily.
All that being said, the plot and mystery were interesting enough to get me to finish the book, although I’m not as sure if I would pick up another one. An old man is found dead in his apartment, his head smashed in by a heavy ashtray and a note on his chest that says (we eventually learn) “I am HIM.” The only other clue is an old photograph found in the back of his desk of the grave of a child.
In investigating the victim’s past, Erlendur finds that he was accused of rape in the 60s but the case was mishandled and the woman did not get justice. The photograph, it turns out, is of the grave of the daughter of the rape victim.
As Erlendur investigates further, he realizes that the victim was a truly repellant creature. He also finds another mystery–one of the victim’s friends disappeared 25 years ago. Erlendur eventually figures it out, and in doing so encounters some interesting twists.