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Posted: August 17, 2013

Indridason pens a compelling story

Book Review

By Derryll White

BRAug17insideIndridason, Arnaldur (2000).  Tainted Blood or Jar City.

Detective Inspector Erlandur of the Reykjavik police force is the central character in this novel. He is fiftyish, divorced for 20 years and the troubled father of two young Icelanders, Eva Lind and Sindri Snaer. Both of Erlandur’s kids struggled with drug addiction and associated social problems. Both posed problems for their father, with remnants of their drug culture coming into conflict with his world of law and order. A sub-text of the novel is Erlandur’s struggle to be a father. How human is that?

This is the first novel in the Inspector Erlandur series and Indridason goes to some length building the character. The Inspector is a forceful man who usually gets his own way inside the department, although not so with his own family.  His disregard for authority has the effect of bonding his team to him. Erlandur carefully heeds his mentor Briem, and has a high regard for the public and his responsibility to them although not for bureaucracy.

Indridason is effective at communicating the social reality of Iceland, the clash of rich and poor, the drug problems and the perceptions that, like elsewhere in the world, the gulf is widening between those that have and those that don’t.

It is clear that this is a northern novel. Icelandic writers are every bit as concerned with weather, particularly, winter, as are Canadian and northern U.S. writers. Winter is a force to be reckoned with.

Indridason uses Icelandic nomenclature to obscure one of the characters in the novel. Marion Briem, unsexed because the name does not reveal the gender as is usually the case in Iceland, is a forceful voice from the past who instructs Erlandur. Briem makes the years disappear with an unerring memory. The author goes to some lengths to keep the reader working to determine Briem’s gender and background.

Indridason focuses a lot in his writing on aloneness. Inspector Erlandur is fascinated by missing persons. How does a person vanish without a trace, and why? Good questions for a policeman but even more telling for a thinking man, a writer alive in a harsh and unforgiving northern environment. Indridason always keeps Iceland close to him, makes it an integral part of the story. Place IS important!

This is a compelling story. On so many levels it asks who each of us really is; how well we know ourselves. The author does us all a service by asking questions of his characters that we rarely ask ourselves.  ‘Jar City’ is definitely on my list of recommended reading.

ICELAND – It was said that the homogenous nation and lack of miscegenation made Iceland a living laboratory for genetic research.

RAPE – “Keep off!” she shouted.  “I’ll phone the police!”  Suddenly she could feel how alone and defenseless she was facing this stranger whom she had let into her home and who by now had moved up close to her, had twisted her arms behind her back and was trying to kiss her.

She fought back, but it was useless.  She tried to talk to him, talk him out of it, but all she could feel was her own vulnerability.

RESEARCH – And you keep all these secrets.  Old family secrets.  Tragedies, sorrows and death, all carefully classified in the computer.  Family stories and stories of individuals.  Stories about me and you.  You keep the whole secret and can call it up whenever you want.  A Jar City for the whole nation.

ULTIMATE QUESTION – Who are you if you’re not yourself?

CONFIDENCE – They started with the pilot, who answered the door unshaven and wearing a vest and shorts….  Erlandur looked around the room and thought to himself that he wouldn’t even board a flight simulator with this man.

CLASS – The couple looked a little older than Erlandur, probably about 60.  They ran a business importing children’s wear and that provided for them amply to enjoy a prosperous lifestyle.  The nouveaux riches.

UNIVERSALITY – “I sat down with my friends and then went outside for a smoke – all the smokers had to go outside….”

WOMEN – “Women,” Erlandur said as he stood up.  “They’re difficult to quality control.”

SCIENCE – All that endless searching for the cause.  Searching for answers where we didn’t think there were any answers to be found.

COLLECTIONS – Collectors make a world for themselves.  They make a little world all around them, select certain icons from reality and turn them into chief characters in this artificial world.

THE ICELANDIC VIEW – “A crow starves sitting,” she said eventually.

“But finds flying,” Erlandur completed the proverb.

KARMA – 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.

ICELANDIC MYSTERY – Someone called Marion Briem was handling the case.  What kind of a name is that anyway?  Marion Briem?

FATE – 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.

HISTORY – Erlandur had once read that the past was a different country and he could understand that.  He understood that times change and people too.  But he wasn’t prepared to erase the past.

RAPE – He imagined the terror she’d experienced and, above all else, wanted to forget as if it had never occurred, as if it had merely been a nightmare from which she’d eventually awake.  Then she realized she would never wake up.  She had been defiled.  She’d been attacked and she’d been plundered.

PHOTOGRAPHY – Yes.  He took photographs.  He was always taking those pictures.  I don’t know why.  He told me once that photos were the mirrors of time, but I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

MEDICAL ANOMALIES – People die in hospitals.  They’re given autopsies.  The organs are examined.  They’re not always returned, some are kept for teaching purposes.  At one time the organs were stored in Jar City.

NEW IDEAS – He’d laughed at the time.  Recalled the apparatus [removable police car lights] on a detective programme on television and thought it was ridiculous to go around using thriller props in Reykjavik.

derryllwhiteDerryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at

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