I think one of the definitions of noir is that the reader feels no sympathy even for the victim of the crime. The whole noir universe is so dark and corrupt that not even the victim can escape corruption. Iceland’s Indridason brings a humanity to the noir genre in the form of his detective, Erlandur, a man who literally has pains in his heart from dealing with the bleak world he sees every day as a policeman. When the detectives are called to the death scene of an old man, apparently randomly murdered with a strange and apparently meaningless message left on the body, one of them says, “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?…Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it…” They all agree, except for lead detective Erlandur, who is troubled by the apparently meaningless note, and later by a mysterious photograph of a grave.
The search for the grave in the photograph leads them to the terrible story of a young girl who died at age 4, her mother who committed suicide shortly after, and the realization that the child was the result of a rape committed by the recently murdered man. As the detectives delve into the dead man’s unsavory past, the seemingly simple story becomes more complex, and the claustrophobia of tiny Iceland becomes almost a part of the story. So also do the skills of Indridason as a novelist, seemingly simple, appear complex on reflection. The discovery of the “jar city” of the title – a loose arrangement where organs harvested from autopsies were kept in jars for research purposes – leads to a further reflection on the author’s part on the nature of collections, collectors, and databases. None of this is incorporated into the plot as a polemic but instead is seamlessly woven into the story itself, which is extremely compelling.
Like all good novelists, Indridason has a feel for plot, but also for well drawn and memorable characters who stay with you after you’ve closed the book because they are so vivid. Erlandur and his drug addicted, pregnant daughter, Eva Lind, are as central and meaningful to the book as the rest of the plot about the crime. There’s even a sidebar story about a missing bride that’s resolved along the way. In his skill and economy of storytelling, as well as it’s haunting aftertaste, Indridason more than resembles the great Ruth Rendell, another novelist of prodigious skill whose books are not just great mysteries but great novels. The story itself and the end of the book are heartbreaking, but what isn’t heartbreaking is to discover a writer of Indridason’s talent and depth.