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Book Note: Arnaldur Indriðason, Jar City

I read this book about 14-Jan-2007. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2000. This note was last modified Tuesday, 16-Jan-2007 21:25:37 PST.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


"A Reykjavik thriller". Translated by Bernard Scudder.

A murder mystery, set in Iceland and written by a native there. The police are decently up in technology and technique, but still find murders, especially murders involving much actual mystery, unusual.

It gets fairly complicated, really. Whether the death originally investigated as a murder is one is doubtful (and depends on local law; it's sort-of self-defense, except the winner of the fight wasn't a reluctant participant, and in fact pretty clearly started it). It's a parricide. It involves two rapes, both producing children. One of the children, and a child of the other, die young of a genetic disease. And it's snooping in the big genetic database (supposed to be carefully protected) that lets the murderer put together enough information to find his father, which leads directly to killing him (within minutes). (There's another death, 25 years ago, that almost has to have been murder, what with the body being disposed of under some plumbing work in the basement, but it was committed by the recently-deceased victim, so there's not much to be done about it.)

Based on the sample presented in this book, most children in Iceland have horrid relationships with their parents, and they all have a drug problem (note that that is not a synonym for "they all do drugs" in my dialect).

The protagonist seems to have his sanity kind-of on the line, too. He trashes his own kitchen in rage at one point, and generally seems to be on the edge of being out of control. Not primarily alcoholic, anyway.

The translation is very British, but that probably isn't a serious problem for the market of this book in the USA.

I never do get a clear picture of the actual extent and limitation of the police powers; it doesn't seem to be a major plot element, the way it is in an awful lot of US mysteries. Clearly the child's body was exhumed without permission of the mother, but I have no idea what the formalities behind that were.

There's a sub-plot about the questionable legality of how universities and individual researchers obtain samples for teaching and research. The fact that a researcher kept the brain of the dead child may have helped the police (or would have if other things hadn't unraveled the case), but it probably wasn't legal anyway. The title comes from that; "jar city" was the room with the collection of organs and samples in glass jars filled with formalin. If that's what the whole book is really about, though, I missed it.

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David Dyer-Bennet