Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indridason
After finishing Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan I needed a distinct change of pace. I don’t know why crime thrillers should be relaxing, but for me at least they are. With snow heaped outside it seemed as good a time as any for Arnaldur Indridason’s well received novel Tainted Blood.
Set in Iceland in 2001, it opens with Detective Erlendur being called to a flat where an elderly man has been murdered. The crime looks like a robbery gone wrong: there’s been another recent assault on an elderly household and the murder weapon is an ashtray that belonged to the victim and was already at the scene.
There are some anomalies though. There’s no sign of a forced entry, and much more strangely than that there’s a three word note left on the victim’s body. A note written on paper also already present at the scene. Who smashes a man’s brains in then stops to find paper and leave a message?
What does the note say? Well, rather annoyingly Indridason doesn’t tell us for more than two thirds of the novel. He’s prone to an old thriller trick which I’ve never been fond of. He withholds information from the reader that is clearly possessed by the viewpoint character so as to build suspense.
I don’t care about working out what’s really going on. I don’t read thrillers to puzzle out whodunnit. I read novels like this to relax and be told a story. The trouble is that when an author artificially holds back information it breaks the flow (and not in a good, forcing me to engage with the language or narrative, way). I can see the joists and beams holding it all together.
Anyway, that complaint aside it’s soon apparent that the case isn’t as simple as it seems. The victim has a hidden photograph of a child’s grave from the 1970s, but he had no family. He had a massive collection of exceptionally hardcore and unpleasant pornography (I’m going to get some hits from some very disappointed people who put that phrase into their search engines…) on his computer. He was also accused, many years ago, of carrying out a particularly brutal rape but was never convicted.
Erlendur begins to investigate, following up leads and investigating the victim’s life. Simultaneously he has to juggle his own problems with his estranged junkie daughter who has recently returned home and a missing bride case he’s taken on as a favour to his ex-wife.
As another aside, what is it with these literary detectives and their failed marriages, drug-addled children and side-cases? Erlendur’s not a badly drawn character (though it’s not a complex portrait) and is fairly convincing as a policeman but it would be nice for a few more of them to have successful marriages, affectionate children and competent superiors. I appreciate the life of a policeman can inflict real harm at home, but some of them must cope.
Indridason’s style is straightforward and efficient, as you’d largely expect. There isn’t a huge sense of place in the novel (originally written for a home audience who’d have known most of the locations) but it’s all very easy to picture and it’s no surprise that it was later turned into a film. Here’s a fairly typical descriptive passage:
The rain poured down on Erlendur and Sigurdur Óli as they hurried out of their car, ran up the steps to the apartment block on Stigalhid and rang the bell. They had contemplated waiting until the shower ended, but Erlender got bored and leapt out of the car. Not wanting to be left behind, Sigurdur Óli followed. They were drenched in an instant. Rain dripped off Sigurdur Óli’s hair and down his back and he glared at Erlendur while they waited for the door to open.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that (and I found this a very easy book to read, there was no stopping and thinking about the prose as with Ann Quin’s Berg say). Arguably it’s a lot of words to tell us it’s raining and they got wet because they didn’t stay in the car but of course Indridason is also telling us something about the character of each of the men.
As Erlendur digs deeper the case gets nastier. I won’t share too much here of how it develops, but it becomes clear that the victim had been a rapist, possibly more than once, and that other aspects of his past may also be very ugly. Evidence comes out of past police corruption, horrific mistreatment of a rape suspect, congenital diseases and the increasing suspicion that if ever a man deserved his fate this man did his. None of which removes the need to find his killer.
Mostly this is a very matter of fact novel. Here for example is a description of a minor character:
The doctor lived in a town house on the west side of the Grarfarvogur suburb. He no longer held a regular medical practice. He welcomed Erlendur at the door himself and showed him into the spacious hallway that he used as an office. He explained to Erlendur that he now did occasional work for lawyers on cases of disability assessment. The office area was simply furnished, tidy, with a little desk and typewriter. The doctor was a short, rather thin man with sharp features. He had a sprightly manner about him. He carried two pens in the breast pocket of the shirt he was wearing. His name was Frank.
At times though again there’s a needless obscurantism. There’s a character named Marion Breem, a potentially real name in Iceland but one that carries no gender signifiers. It’s never made clear if Marion is a man or a woman or what he/she looks like. Marion is an old influence on Erlendur and intended as something of a mysterious presence, but so mysterious that the reader doesn’t even know his/her gender? Equally, it’s over 30 pages in before Erlendur is described (long after he’s been introduced). I just couldn’t see the point in these tricks in what is otherwise such a straightforward narrative.
That’s a fair amount of criticism there, so I’ll turn to what does work and why I might read the sequel (though I fear there’s at least six in this series now). I watched a while back the Wallander stories on tv, with Kenneth Branagh. They weren’t bad, but they were very far fetched with this ordinary Swedish policeman cracking cases which went to the heart of Swedish government or attempts to destabilise the world financial system.
There’s none of that here. Erlendur’s case is unusual, it’s different enough to merit being the plot of a thriller, but it’s not world changing. It’s small and tawdry with old secrets having been left to rot and still causing harm years later. There’s a depressing tone to it all, but not without elements of hope too. What’s really going on is desperate and sad, but Erlendur is at least revealing such truth as can be revealed and things may (though may not) improve with his daughter.
I enjoyed Tainted Blood overall. For me it has some real flaws, mostly arising from its reliance on authorial tricks that frankly it just doesn’t need. For all that though it’s a cleanly written crime novel with a reasonably engaging protagonist and a satisfying plot. It’s what I wanted when I picked it up, and if you’re a crime fan it’s a solid read within that genre. It’s just not going to do anything to push the boundaries of the genre.
Tainted Blood was translated by Bernard Scudder and won the CWA Gold Dagger award, which isn’t an award I’m familiar with but others may be.
Tainted Blood appears to be out of print at the moment, though I believe it’s available for Kindle. Kimbofo wrote a glowing review here, much more positive than mine, which as ever is worth a read. I also found this review of a more recent book in the series, by Black Sheep Dances (a very interesting looking blog that I need to read more of having recently found it). BSD’s reaction seems quite similar to mine – reservations but an interest in possibly reading another.
Finally, Tainted Blood was originally known by the title Jar City, which personally I think is a much better name both generally (Tainted Blood is pretty dull as titles go) and for this book specifically. It’s also the title of the film based on the book.