I don’t consider myself an avid mystery reader, but every once in a while, I can get suckered in by the suspense and intrigue. There have been a few mysteries written by Americans that I enjoyed, none that I became succumbed by. None of them were one of those stories where you have to continue reading until the end, or else jumping off a building seems like a plausible solution to an existence of not knowing.
Somehow, the Scandinavians have won gold in this category of writing “obsess-worthy” mysteries for me. One of the more recent plunges I took into this genre was the primary novel in the Millennium trilogy from Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the other two subsequent novels are hardly worth mentioning).
I remember reading the entire book on vacation a few years ago, and like most of those in the country reading the novel at the time, I absolutely had to finish it in a matter of three days or things were going to get ugly. Reflecting back on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I don’t think that anyone could make the case that Larsson wrote decent, well developed literature, but he was masterful at creating suspense, something as a writer I admit to finding very challenging.
Thanks to Larsson, my interest in other Scandinavian mystery writers pushed me west in my research, down the rabbit hole of forgotten literature from that tiny country of Iceland, and I came across Arnaldur Indriđason’s Silence of the Grave (from the Icelandic Grafarþögn) entirely by accident. I watched the film version of the second book in Indriđason’s Inspector Erlendur series that shares the same title as the novel, Jar City (from the translation Mýrin). Keep in mind Jar City is technically the third book in the series and Silence of the Grave the fourth; the first two have yet to be translated into English. Jar City then lead me to read Silence of the Grave, both unique takes on the classic crime noir we know so well but with unpronounceable names and vast descriptions of Reykjavik.
I often hear from readers, particularly in the case of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, that they don’t like this book because it is so Russian. It takes a lot for an individual to fall into this story if they don’t have some type of knowledge about Russia or Russian culture especially that Russians feel the need to repeat first and last names constantly or that the same individual has multiple names (Ivan Ponyrev!). So is the case with Indriđason’s novels; they’re so Icelandic. My Kindle version does not offer a pronunciation guide that is offered in the front of my print copy of Jar City, so names like Skarphédinn, Sigurdur Óli, Höskuldur Thórarinsson sort of get glazed over in my head. But that’s half the fun, I’d argue.
Not being able to pronounce the names doesn’t stop one from following the story perfectly, though there were multiple times while reading both Jar City and Silence of the Grave that I had to stop and question what the editor was thinking before publishing a written paragraph. As we often find in translations into English, no matter what the native language is, issues arise depending on the particular English the text is being translated into. In this case, it is obvious that the editors were British (the publisher is MacMillan Publishers who is based out of London). There aren’t so many issues of context, spelling, or vocabulary based on the different Englishes used, but there are several questionable usages in the realm of the grammatical and syntax:
“It was still winter then, with heavy snow, dark and cold. He was not intending to argue with her. He hadn’t planned to lose his temper. But she would not give an inch. Any more than usual.”
“Erlendur sat in his car, smoking and thinking that he should have reacted differently, swallowed his pride and tracked Eva down when his anger abated. Told her again that her mother was lying, he would never have suggested an abortion. Never could have. And not leave her to send him an SOS.”
The fragments throughout the story become almost overwhelming, especially because it doesn’t appear to be a stylistic tool; it’s simply how the writer has written the text. When reading Silence of the Grave, I had to stop multiple times and reread the paragraph in order to understand the context of the fragment, especially because they are used inappropriately at times when sentences could easily flow together into two or three combined sentences instead of ten short, second grade style verses.
Despite the writing being structurally poor, Jar City and Silence of the Grave make up for their lack of mature syntax with interesting plots and unlikeable characters. Inspector Erlendur himself is quite a despicable hero. Though he is a fabulously devoted cop and quite brilliant when he needs to be, he left his wife and young children simply because he could, an act that later turns his daughter in a drug addict and his son into an alcoholic. He has literally no hobbies beyond reading about past crimes and sleeping in an arm chair, and he eats only microwaveable or fast food. Erlendur is surrounded by other rather unlikeable people; a cop fresh out of the academy named Sigurdur Óli who is impatient, lacks a filter, and is easily bored by important police tasks; and Elínborg, the only woman on the force who we know little to nothing about as readers except that it seems she spends a lot of her time babysitting Sigurdur Óli. Together, these three explore past and current crimes in and around Reykjavik that center on controversial subjects, such as rape, incest, abortion, and domestic violence.
I think it would be incredibly unfair to expect high literary merit of a mystery novel, and one produced for the masses on top of that, so despite the writing being a little so-so, I do overall recommend at least trying your hand at Jar City and Silence of the Grave. Indriđason does an excellent job of creating a unique plot with interesting mysteries, and I found that I did want to read till the end, even if I felt like a third grader would probably beat me to it.