Arnaldur Indridason, Jar City (Picador, 2004)
Arnaldur Indridason, Silence of the Grave (Picador, 2005)
Arnaldur Indridason, The Draining Lake (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007)

Sometime in the last year or so, my husband came home from one of his occasional forays through the mystery section of our favorite local independent bookstore carrying a hard-bound copy of Arnaldur Indridason's The Draining Lake. A contemporary murder mystery set in Iceland sounded interesting. I read it and liked it, ordered two other books in the series and have now read both of those. I figured that would be enough to give you a good sense of the series.

Former journalist Arnaldur Indridason is Icelandic. He writes in Icelandic (Bernard Scudder is the series translator). He writes about Iceland in a way I find particularly evocative of that mysterious and remote island nation. His writing style is sparse. He tends to favor short, simple sentences that remind me of the works of Hemingway that I read years ago. As is typical of the genre, the text is a mix of exposition and dialogue. The perspective is third person, and reflects varying viewpoints. I would characterize the mood as grim -- you won't find any humor, even dark humor, in this series!

The primary continuing characters are members of the Reykjavik Police CID who interact on both a personal and professional level. Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson (Icelanders don't often use their last names) is clearly the protagonist. He is fifty-ish, divorced, introverted and generally lonely. Memories of his past often trouble him. He has two grown children who don't particularly like him, although his daughter Eva Lind shows up in his life whenever she needs help. She's a drug addict, so that happens fairly often. His son, Sindri Snaer, also has issues with substance abuse (he's been in and out of rehab), but does not appear as a regular character until The Draining Lake. A retired police superintendent who was obviously a mentor to the young Erlendur also appears in the series. Marion Briem is dying of lung cancer and spends his days alone in his apartment breathing through an oxygen mask, watching old Westerns and longing for a cigarette.

The other two primary characters are Erlendur's colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg. Sigurdur Oli is in his mid-thirties and very good-looking. He lives with a woman named Bergthora, who would really like him to marry her so they could start a family. Elinborg is a forty-something woman who loves to cook and eat. She is on her second marriage and has three children still living at home.

While you could place these novels in the mystery subgenre known as police procedural, I didn't find them as heavily focused on the police aspects as I might have expected. Indridason seldom refers to any members of the police department other than the primary characters. They don't spend much time in their workplace. More typically, they are at a crime scene or out in the field conducting interviews or examining evidence. Often the narrative places them in their residences. Erlendur is pictured eating convenience food and falling asleep in his chair, usually after reading another account of a person lost in one of Iceland's wild and unpredictable storms. Sigurdur Oli is often depicted romping with Bergthora. Elinborg spends a lot of time thinking about the next meal she is going to prepare.

There are a number of continuing story elements and certainly some plot developments across the novels, but each is pretty much self-contained in terms of the murder mystery. I happened to read The Draining Lake first and didn't find it terribly confusing to read the other novels out of order. However, for the purpose of this review, I will present the descriptions in order of publication, which also happens to be the chronological order within the stories.

Jar City opens in October 2001 at the scene of a murder in Reykjavik. An elderly man named Holberg is found on the floor of his small basement apartment with a head wound. Erlendur finds a scrap of paper on top of the body. Three words are written in pencil on the paper. Erlendur can't make sense of them. Later, when he and the forensic team conduct a thorough search of the apartment, he finds a photograph of a gravestone showing a female name and dates that indicate the person was four years old when she died in 1968, over thirty years before the action in the novel takes place. He and the others working at the site also notice that the apartment has a foul smell.

The investigation takes Erlendur and his colleagues back to the time of that child's conception as well as to various locations around the island, including the state prison. They discover a connection between this murder and the highly controversial Icelandic Health Sector Database, which contains genetic and genealogical data on all Icelanders. In fact, the title Jar City refers to a facility used to store organs for research purposes.

In Silence of the Grave, which takes place the following spring, the team is called to investigate after a human skeleton is discovered in the foundation of a partially-built house in a new subdivision on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Indridason builds tension in this narrative by having a team of archaeologists unearth the skeleton. They take a considerable amount of time to do so, and during that time the CID team has to work with very limited information as they carry out their work.

In this novel, Indridason also introduces a parallel story line of a family that lived in the same area during World War II. The adult male in the family is a violent abuser of his wife and children. One of the children is severely physically disabled as a consequence of an illness she experienced as a toddler. Of course the reader readily concludes that the skeleton belongs to one of the members of this family. But it isn't until the last few pages of the novel that the identity of the victim and the nature of the crime are revealed by a surviving witness.

Silence of the Grave features a major continuing plotline from Jar City in which Eva Lind tells Erlendur that she is pregnant and promises to clean herself up so that her child will be born in good health. In Silence of the Grave, Eva Lind miscarries when the pregnancy is about seven months along. The blood loss from the miscarriage throws her into a coma. Erlendur spends a lot of time sitting with her in the hospital, reflecting on his failed marriage, his issues with parenting, and a traumatic experience from his childhood that still haunts him.

The Draining Lake, which opens in May when the sun is high and the days are already very long, starts with another cold case. This time, a hydrologist finds the skeleton in a lakebed where she is investigating the decline in water level precipitated by recent seismic activity (just a little reminder that Iceland is in an area of high geological instability). When they clear the debris away from the skeleton, they find it chained to an old radio transmitter with Russian markings on it. The investigation leads them back to a period in Iceland's history when college students spent time in East Germany learning about the grand experiment of Communism.

One of the interesting bits of continuity in The Draining Lake concerns Elinborg, who is having a cookbook published. She seems to be much more excited about this than she is about the case. Erlendur is seeing a woman his age; she is married to someone else, which of course complicates the relationship. Eva Lind is languishing in a rehab program, which she only agreed to enter in lieu of doing prison time for assaulting Sigurdur Oli. Sindri Snaer shows up, causing even more irritation in Erlendur's personal life.

While I didn't learn much about the Icelandic criminal justice system or Icelandic politics from reading these novels, I learned quite a lot about the island's recent (post World War II) history, its topography, its food, its weather, and the kinds of places that people live in -- both domiciles and settlements. Oh, yes, the Picador editions include maps -- one of the whole island, one of the relatively developed region around Reykjavik, one of center of the city. I found these enormously helpful as references whenever the characters traveled to one of the outlying areas, which they frequently did.

Coincidentally, about the time I decided to resume reading the series, we happened upon the film version of Jar City (in Icelandic with English subtitles) and watched it over a couple of nights. The screenplay follows the action and the dialogue from the novel so closely that I found it quite disquieting, but even more disquieting were the long shots of Erlendur driving his SUV on the roads outside of Reykjavik. I have driven in some pretty desolate places, but I've never seen anyplace that even vaguely resembles Iceland!

We also happened about the same time to watch the episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain travels to Iceland and dines on such delicacies as sheep's eyeballs and fermented shark meat. Fascinating! Of course in Jar City Erlendur eats half a sheep's head, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.

There are two other novels in the series, Voices, which falls between Jar City and Silence of the Grave, and Arctic Chill, which postdates The Draining Lake. When I am in the mood for some more Arctic noir, I will know where to look!

[Donna Bird]