a typical clumsy Icelandic murder

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.

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17 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Icelandic Literature, Indridason, Arnaldur

17 responses to “a typical clumsy Icelandic murder

  1. ‘I can see the joists and beams holding it all together.’

    Quite, and this embodies my main reservation with a lot of crime fiction, along with the slowly secreted drip-feed of information that’s presumably meant to keep a tantalising denoument dangling or whatever. A quick swish of the curtain and you can see the rusty cogs grinding AND you’re on a breadcrumb trail like some masochistic child tearing a Christmas present open in tiny increments. Er, that’s perhaps a bit strong but you know what I mean.

  2. Should be ‘denouement’ of course! Must I rush these things!

  3. I know what you mean. If you’re an existing fan of the genre it’s a good genre novel. If you’re not, it’s not one I’d try to tempt you to the genre with.

    Actually, I wouldn’t really try to tempt anyone to any genre, you either feel the pull or you don’t. There are some writers though who’re rewarding even if you normally hate the genre they’re part of. Philip K Dick say, Kurt Vonnegut or William McIlvanney just to pick some examples. Stanislaw Lem or Raymond Chandler.

    Here there’s a slight whiff of formula. It’s reasonably well done, but it’s an evening’s entertainment. That said, that’s I suspect exactly what it’s intended to be so that’s not really a criticism. It does as you’d expect it to.

  4. leroyhunter

    Doesn’t do it for me Max. I like crime fiction but I dislike a lot of the standard-type stuff, which to be honest this sounds like. I read a Wallander years ago and wasn’t bothered with it.

    I’ve read 2 of Dibdin’s Zen series, which I’m not sure about, but I believe it gets much better so I might persist. Ross Macdonald I’m enjoying and will read all of I imagine. When crime is good it’s really good so it bugs me that so much seems to be formulaic or poorly written.

  5. lizzysiddal

    ” it would be nice for a few more of them to have successful marriages, affectionate children and competent superiors” – try Donna Leon’s Brunnetti series. Not that I recommend them. All that domestic happiness makes life just too cozy. I like my crime bleak and depressing and Indridason does that for me.

    I’m with you on the dreadfully translated title. “Jar City” is so right. They obviously thought that “Tainted Blood” would sell more copies.

    It was his second novel “The Silence of the Grave” that won the Gold Dagger. A cracking read and nowhere near as clumsy as my review.

    http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2007/06/23/silence-of-the-grave-arnaldur-indridason/

  6. As you know Max, I am a crime fiction fan, and the complete change of pace is relaxing. You might want to check out the Mexican PI series by Paco Igancio Taibo II and also the Italian series by Andrea Camilleri. They have some nice touches of humour. I haven’t read a great deal of the Scandanavian crime thrillers, but I haven’t exactly been “thrilled” by the ones I’ve read.

    I had a sneak preview look thanks to Amazon at a Donna Leon novel and not my sort of thing.

    When you start sniffing the genre formula, the thrill is gone.

  7. I see there’s a film version of Jar City

  8. I like your introduction and I tend to have the same reactions. After a difficult or boring book, I’m tempted to rush to a crime fiction novel. It’s unwinding. It’s strange that with all this snow around, we feel like reading something with more cold and snow. (I picked up The Ski Bum the other day, when I was stuck at home by snow)

    Someone gave an Indridason book to my husband, it’s on the shelf, I haven’t read it yet. (His first name always reminds me of a sword’s name, I can’t help it). I was expecting something like what you describe: a good “beach and transportation” book. The name of the publisher gave it away. It is published by “Point” in France and if it had been a breakthrough in crime fiction, it would have been published by Rivage Noir or 10:18. The French title is “La Cité des Jarres”.

    Something else:
    “(I’m going to get some hits from some very disappointed people who put that phrase into their search engines…)” Do you think they are the same ones that put ‘sex and fun’ and end up on my post on Proust? I wish I could see their face when then they realize where they are. They’ll cast a spell on book bloggers if we keep on being facetious.

    I have a question about names: “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.” Are there men named ‘Marion’? In French, it can only be feminine.

  9. leroyhunter

    Guy: I believe the film is pretty good – at least, I saw it well reviewed when it was out (last year I think).

    bookaround: John Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison….

  10. Thanks Leroy.
    It’s my daughter’s name, actually. You’re telling me that if she ever spends a semester in a US university, she may end up in men’s dormitories as it happened to my sister who also has that kind of first name. Great.

  11. leroyhunter

    As an extreme example, there’s Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Named Sue”….

  12. Oh dear, you linked to my rather cruddy review back when I used to write 200-word synopsis in about 10 minutes! Embarrassing. 😉

    Like you, I tend to read crime fiction to relax, to enjoy the story. Typically, I usually find the plot fairly predictable and guess the ending, but Indridason’s work is a cut above the rest. I’ve read all in the series, apart from the last one (which is on my kindle, lying in wait) and he generally leaves me guessing. Over the course of the series the characters — Erlunder, his daughter, Marion Breem — have developed further, so some of the flaws you point out here re: lack of information about them, are probably deliberate.

    Your point about fictional detectives always having failed marriages, horrible children and incompetent superiors is one I used to share. But then I read a couple of the Brunetti series (that Lizzy refers to in her comment) and found them cloying. Ditto for a Swedish writer by the name of Camilla Läckberg — her policeman is happily married and it’s just far too cozy and upbeat for me!

  13. I’ve checked in a French copy : Marion Breem is a woman. French grammar can be a blessing sometimes…

  14. I read the first one or two Aurelio Zen novels and didn’t care enough to continue. If you do press on Leroy please let me know if I made the wrong call there. The character’s name doesn’t help in all honesty, it’s too obviously made up. People would comment on it continuously in real life.

    Lizzy, tricky these publishers! The cover just says “Winner of the CWA Gold Dagger” which plainly implies this book won it, whereas it was the author for another book. Tut tut. Thanks for the link, I’m undecided about pressing on so I’ll pop by and have a read.

    I’m sure you and Kimbofo are right about the risk of cosiness. To be fair to Rankin his Rebus in the ones I’ve read (the first six or so) has a mix of relationships and is often single but it’s not unmitigated misery. It’s more nuanced than that. Rankin manages a happy middle between wholly dismal personal lives and dreary contentment. I’ll be blogging some Rankin soon actually so I may expand on that there.

  15. There is a film and it was well regarded, I plan to catch it some time.

    Regarding the name, it’s intentionally unclear as to gender. There’s a helpful foreword from the translator which explains that the various names of the characters are first names (because of the way surnames work in Iceland) and that even within the police everything is pretty much on a first name basis. Marion Breem is a name which could go either way in Iceland, male or female, and the text avoids gender signifiers always using the full name rather than he or she.

    It’s needless obscurantism to my mind, as I said in the review. Sure, Marion’s a mysterious figure, but I can’t picture them at all because I don’t know whether it’s a man or a woman.

    The French ironically seems to undermine the authorial intent by revealing which it is, but so it goes.

    Kimbofo, there is always a degree of commitment needed for books like these isn’t there? By the sixth or so Rankin I read I was really enjoying them. The first to be honest was so so. I can see how the pace of multiple volumes builds up the characters.

    I loved the details on Sigurdur’s marriage and the way it was settling into a sort of unwelcome domesticity. I thought too the revelations about the retired polieman and how he had treated the rape victim were very powerful (among the book’s best passages actually).

    One interesting thing about this book is how along the way it speaks to the problems of reporting rape. At least one character doesn’t and stores up problems when what happened comes out later in life, but one does and is treated terribly by the police . Either way it’s a no win, and I think that’s an intentional criticism because a no win is not an acceptable place for something like that to be. It’s a comment on where Iceland used to be, and of course on dilemmas which still remain. It’s not as if today someone can’t come in to report an assault and meet an unsympathetic officer who just doesn’t care.

    Edit: Looking at Lizzy’s review of the sequel I see that theme of the choices female victims of crime are and were offered now and in Iceland’s past remains very much a core element. Interesting. It’s worth heading over there and seeing how Indridason seems to be developing certain themes in his work.

  16. Max, in French there is no way to remain neutral.
    That gender doesn’t exist, contrary to German for example. The way you have to make agree some verbs and adjectives with the subject makes it impossible not to pick a side.

  17. Thanks Bookaround.

    As an aside, here’s the first sentence from the second book in the series – Silence of the Grave:

    “He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.”

    To be fair to Indridason, that’s pretty good. I looked at a sample on my kindle and based on that and Lizzie’s review I’ll give it a go.

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