Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (alternate title: Tainted Blood)
Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City, winner of the Scandinavian crime writers’ Glass Key award for 2002, was the first of Indridason’s Reykjavík Murder Mystery series translated into English, but by last November when I set off on holiday, six more in the series were available, so I loaded them all on my eBook reader, hoping that Inspector Erlendur would keep me entertained for a few weeks. He did not disappoint. In fact, Inspector Erlendur became my new favourite moody sleuth, and I’m looking forward to reading the next installment.
Perhaps because I read the Reykjavík Murder Mystery series in order, all within a period of a few weeks, I recognized that I was learning more about Erlendur with each book. This realization prompted me to look more closely at how the author approached character development.
In a 2006 Guardian UK interview, Arnaldur Indridason stated that when he created Erlendur, his intention was to create “an interesting character who cared about people… then put him into unusual and dangerous situations.” His long-term aim was a simple one: “I want to really understand Erlendur.”
Explaining his protagonist’s gloominess and why he chose to give him an unhappy home life, Indridason added:
“Erlendur comes from the country and never felt at home in the city. His domestic life is either difficult or just bleak. A good-looking man in his 30s with a happy home life and good at his job is a happy ending of a story, not a beginning. The study of family life lets you raise all kinds of questions … few other things are so important in our lives… How can Erlendur deal with other people’s family tragedies – usually lost people in every sense – but can’t help himself? What makes him who he is?”
True to this premise, early on in Jar City, we get a brief overview of Inspector Erlendur, who at first seems to be your typical series detective:
“Erlendur was roughly 50, divorced many years earlier, a father of two. He never let anyone sense that he couldn’t stand his children’s names. His ex-wife, with whom he had hardly spoken for more than two decades, thought they sounded sweet at the time. The divorce was a messy one and Erlendur had more or less lost touch with his children when they were young. They sought him out when they were older and he welcomed them, but regretted how they had turned out. He was particularly grieved by Eva Lind’s fate. Sindri Snaer had fared better. But only just.”
Indridason is not one to do a lot of describing or explaining, he’d rather show us the man in action and trust the reader to fill in the blanks, so to speak. As I see it, in Jar City Erlendur’s character is revealed through how he responds to situations within three aspects of the story:
- the main plot, the murder investigation.
- the secondary storyline involving a missing bride
- his relationship with his daughter Eva Lind
As to the first, since I’m averse to revealing any more than is necessary to make my point, I’ll keep details to a minimum. Jar City begins with Inspector Erlendur on the scene after the discovery of the body of an elderly man in his basement flat, head bashed in, murder weapon left not far from the body. Clues are sparse: only a cryptic three-word note apparently left by the murderer, and a small black-and-white photograph that Erlendur discovers hidden beneath a drawer in the murdered man’s flat. The photo is of a grave in a cemetery in wintertime, the inscription a girl’s name, AUDUR, andthe dates: 1964—1968.
We learn much about Erlendur in witnessing how he goes about discovering what this photograph, and a little girl, dead at age four, has to do with the murder of an old man. The questions Erlendur asks, how he responds to the people he questions, as well as his reactions to what he learns as the investigation progresses help us to get to know him. But even more telling is how these answers and reactions resonate with aspects of his own troubled life and his relationship with his daughter, Eva Lind.
As for the sub-plot involving the runaway bride, the casual reader may see it as extraneous, but I believe it serves several purposes, not the least of these being to bring Eva Lind and Erlunder together in various telling circumstances from which the reader gains much purely from witnessing how they interact. e.g. – the same day the body of the old man is found, Eva Lind unexpectedly turns up at Erlendur’s flat:
“I talked to Mum today. Or rather, she talked to me and asked if I would talk to you. Great having divorced parents.”
“Does your mother want something from me?” Erlendur asked in surprise. After 20 years she still hated him. He’d caught just one glimpse of her in all that time and there had been no mistaking the loathing on her face. She’d spoken to him once about Sindri Snaer, but that was a conversation he preferred to forget.
“She’s such a snobby bitch.”
“Don’t talk about your mother like that.”
“It’s about some filthy rich friends of hers from Gardabaer. Married their daughter off at the weekend and she just did a runner from the wedding. Really embarrassing. That was on Saturday and she hasn’t been in touch since. Mum was at the wedding and she’s knocked out by the scandal of it. I’m supposed to ask if you’ll talk to the parents. They don’t want to put an announcement in the papers, bloody snobs, but they know you’re in the CID and reckon they can do it all really hush-hush. I’m the one who’s supposed to ask you to talk to that crowd. Not Mum. You get it? Never!”
After Erlendur reluctantly agrees to look into the disappearance, he soon questions the girl’s parents and discovers that the runaway bride also left a cryptic note, this one hidden on a decorative ‘message tree’ amongst greeting cards from wedding guests at the wedding reception. Both the note and the message tree turn out to be significant, both in regard to the themes explored in the book and in how they figure in Erlendur’s thought processes as he puzzles through both cases.
However, it is the third aspect, Erlendur’s relationship with his daughter, that reveals the most about him, and I intend to explore this aspect in my next post, but I’ll leave you with a scene from the book, in which Erlendur confronts Eva Lind after she once again gives in to her addictions, despite recently discovering that she is pregnant. I feel it is an excellent illustration of not only Erlendur’s confused feelings for his daughter, but of how aspects of the murder investigation resonate with his personal life.
“What a bloody loser you can be sometimes. Do you really feel so good in that company you keep that you can’t think there’s anything better for you? What right do you have to treat your life like that? What right do you have to treat the life inside you like that? Do you really think things are so horrible for you? Do you really think no-one in the world feels as bad as you? I’m investigating the death of a girl who didn’t even reach the age of five. She fell ill and died. Something no-one understands destroyed her and killed her. Her coffin was three feet long. Can you hear what I’m saying? What right have you got to live? Tell me that!”
Erlendur was shouting. He stood up and hammered on the kitchen table with such a force that the cups started jumping around and when he saw that he picked one up and threw it at the wall behind Eva Lind. His rage flared up and for a moment he lost control of himself. He overturned the table, swept everything off the kitchen surfaces, pots and glasses slammed into the walls and floor. Eva Lind sat still in her chair, watched her father go berserk and her eyes filled with tears.
Finally Erlendur’s rage abated, he turned to Eva Lind and saw her shoulders were shaking and she was hiding her face in her hands. He looked at his daughter, her dirty hair, thin arms, wrists hardly thicker than his fingers, her skinny, trembling body. She was barefoot and there was dirt under all her nails. He went over to her and tried to pull her hands away from her face, but she wouldn’t let him. He wanted to apologise to her. Wanted to take her in his arms. He did neither.
Instead, he sat down on the floor beside her. The phone rang but he didn’t answer it. There was no sign of the other girl from the bedroom. The phone stopped ringing and the flat fell silent again. The only sound was Eva Lind sobbing. Erlendur knew he was no model father and the speech he’d delivered could just as easily have been directed at himself. Probably he was talking just as much to himself and was as angry with himself as with Eva Lind. A psychologist would say he’d been venting his anger on the girl. But maybe what he said did have some effect. He hadn’t seen Eva Lind cry before. Not since she was a small child. He left her when she was two.
Next post 26 Feb 2013