Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason, trans. Bernard Scudder

A chilling Icelandic saga of the DNA age
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The Independent Culture

Strange that the word "saga" now conjures up cosy family chronicles, when the Icelandic sagas are among the bloodiest murder stories ever written. The way in which killing reverberates from generation to generation, the question of how society evolves to deal with it - these themes lie at the heart of the great Norse narratives. Jar City, set in Iceland, is a slim novel, yet it has some elements of the sagas: sardonic humour, the cold acceptance of fate, far-reaching consequences.

At first sight, Arnaldur Indridason's book seems to follow a well-worn path. Here is the middle-aged policeman struggling with his own problems, a staple of much crime fiction from Mankell to Rankin. In this case, it is Inspector Erlendur ("It's all one great bloody big mire") Sveinsson. Living off microwaved dinners and boiled sheep's head, Sveinsson tries to cope with an empty life and a drug-addicted daughter. A new case seems routine at first: a solitary elderly man is found beaten to death with a glass ash-tray.

The dead man had a psychopathic friend and a collection of sadistic pornography. Investigations lead back to an accusation of rape against the victim and the death of a small girl, 40 years previously. Was it the victim's child, begotten during the rape? At that time, in Iceland as elsewhere, the laws on rape favoured the accuser, and the woman was disbelieved.

Erlendur obtains permission for an autopsy and the pathologist finds that the girl's brain has been removed. The resulting enquiries take Erlendur into the realms of laboratories and organ preservation, about which everyone was so much less sensitive 40 years ago.

Iceland has a unique genetics programme which traces patients on the basis of their relationship to one another. Is the mystery connected with investigations into hereditary diseases, which can be rewardingly studied in Iceland's small, homogeneous population? This research provides a new and fascinating twist for the crime story.

Another curious case, seemingly more light-hearted, comes Erlendur's way: that of a runaway bride from a rich family. Like a girl in some legend, she flees from her own wedding, leaving the groom and guests waiting at the reception. To please his ex-wife, Erlendur undertakes to find her and discovers that this story connects with that of his own daughter, with whom he builds a moving relationship when he discovers that she is pregnant. In spite of all the modern science, the message of the story is an ancient one, about secrets hidden in families that can be passed down from generation to generation.

This careful, sparsely-written book operates at a deeper level than most crime fiction: it conveys the sense of painful inevitability underlying the old stories that medieval Icelanders told through the long winter nights. Jar City is the first of Indridason's "Reykjavik Murder Mystery" series, which looks as if it will be a worthy addition to the national tradition.