Friday, June 8, 2012

Jar City--Review

On impulse, I decided to add a book for Iceland, as there had been so much mention of that country in "The Greenlanders." I decided it would be fun to contrast that 14th century land with its modern incarnation, so I picked up a book that had been recommended in the GR group.

Big mistake. Sure, it was fun to pick up a book from the library shelved under the author's first name (Icelanders commonly don't really have a surname) but the amusement quotient descended rapidly from that point, and it wasn't too long before I was  measuring the width of unread pages and calculating how much longer I had before I was done with the damn thing.

Where to begin? Well, it's execrably written. True, it is in translation, but judging from the paper-thin-characters, clumsy exposition and faulty point-of-view, it would be difficult to blame the translator for the wooden style; I suspect it reads just as badly in the original Icelandic. (In addition, the translator, Bernard Scudder, is clearly English, and the Brit colloquialisms are a bit unsettling for an American reader. I kept thinking I was reading a script for "The Bill", or another UK police procedural; it kept jerking me out of the story, though of course that isn't really Scudder's fault, and this wouldn't be an issue if the book were any good.) These flaws can be forgiven if the mystery is cleverly constructed, but this one is just plain dumb, relying on leaps of logic and magical guesswork that could just not happen in real life.

When a mystery writer shows no interest in developing compelling characters, or describing an evocative landscape, or revealing a particular milieu, or even crafting a beautiful sentence, than the plot itself must be cannily crafted; the gears and pieces must fit together like the proverbial pieces of clockwork.On this point--the most basic requirement of his chosen genre-- Arnaldur fails miserably. Here's the thing, without giving away too much of the mystery: I don't care how small a country is, NO ONE could guess that a woman in a small town "might" have been the target of a rapist some twenty-thirty years before. It is unbelievable that a police detective could finagle a wiretap of a maybe victim (!) within a day of making such a far-fetched guess. (How in the world, by the way,  is it legal to infringe upon the legal rights of an innocent person--especially based on the wild hunch of a low-ranking policeman? Do the laws of governance operate differently in Iceland, or something?)  It wasn't just legal  issues that were flouted--the basic laws of biology were ignored as well. A rapist impregnating all of his victims? Eye-rolling unbelievable. The coy refusal, too, to even reveal the sex of one of the minor characters just added to the feeling of gimmicky contrivance. And the final scene was heavy-handed and maudlin; it seems to have been written with an obvious self-consciousness towards a screenplay for a movie, which indeed this book did become.

This book has gotten many good reviews. I just can't think why. It seems like a calculating hack job riding the Scandinavian-noir wave created by "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo." The relationship of the main character and his hard-drinking, drug-using daughter seem boiler-plate at best. There's no atmosphere except for pissing weather,  lots of drinking, and the occasional eating of a sheep's head. The only plot point  particular to Iceland is the genealogical survey of the entire Icelandic population--which has all ready been the subject of much attention. There are many mysteries out there that deliver both a clever plot and good writing; this novel succeeds in neither of these objectives. Just a bad, bad, book, with no redeeming value.

                                                                            One Star


  1. I had a similar experience with Library of Shadows, which is apparently a "best seller." Perhaps being a best seller isn't enough for us!

  2. I don't like to be an elitist, and I love a good mystery, but it must be well-plotted.