An elderly man has been murdered in his apartment with, of all things, an ashtray. When Detective Erlendur arrives on the scene with his partner Sigurdur Olí, they search the victim’s apartment but do not find much in the way of clues other than the photograph of a four-year-old girl that died thirty years ago. This begins the mystery. Who is the girl? What is her tie to the deceased? Is someone taking revenge for her death, thirty years later?
As the plot unfolds, Erlendur and Sigurdur quickly discover that the victim was a serial rapist and that the girl is the offspring of one of his attacks. After the girl’s death, the mother committed suicide, and only her surviving and antagonistic sister can tell him the story of the crime. As Erlendur investigates, his heroine-addicted daughter Eva turns up on his doorstep, pregnant and needing a safe haven. When Erlendur is handed a side mystery to solve for a wealthy couple, which is a strange intrusion into the book’s pacing and theme, it is inexplicably Eva who manages to resolve it through her drug world contacts.
This is a book that is drowning in pregnant women, pregnant women that are used mostly as plot devices. The characters are as stereotypical and flat as the plot. Erlendur is our flawed good guy hero, who is neglecting his health for the sake of the case and has problems with his children. (Don´t they all). Sigurdur Olí exists only as a comic sidekick, who occasionally manages to uncover something useful. The witnesses fill the gamut from antagonistic to eccentric, but they all become helpful in solving the mystery. Eva is the only one with any depth, which is focused around her struggle to change her life for the child that she’s carrying. It is Erlendur’s relationship with his daughter that is the most interesting, but it disappears two-thirds of the way into the book. As the action unfolds and the mystery draws to its conclusion, I was unsurprised by any of the events, even the dramatic final scene that probably worked out better in the movie than the novel. A crime drama without suspense or surprise goes downhill quickly.
This is the third book in the Detective Erlendur series and I have not read the others, so it makes me wonder if this would have improved the reading. Although the central mystery is contained well and wrapped up within this novel, the flatness of the characters made Jar City suffer as a standalone novel. However, the writing itself is very Hemingwayesque sparse and there is a certain beauty to it. All the same, the randomness of many of the events that further the plot combined with the lack of character depth made this novel a slog for me.
Yet, a lot of people really enjoyed this book. Jar City has been an extraordinarily successful novel. A movie was made and it’s a winner of the Glass Key award. Arnaldur is one of the most popular Icelandic writers today, in a country with a deep and popular literary tradition. It almost makes me curious enough to try and track down the previous Inspector Erlendur novels to see if there’s something I’m missing. Almost, but not quite.