When a lonely old man is found dead in his Reykjavík flat, the only clues are a cryptic note left by the killer and a photograph of a young girl's grave. Inspector Erlendur discovers that many years ago the victim was accused, but not convicted, of an unsolved crime, a rape. Did the old man's past come back to haunt him? As Erlendur reopens this very cold case, he follows a trail of unusual forensic evidence, uncovering secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man.
An international sensation, the Inspector Erlendur series has sold more than two million copies worldwide.
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A Reykjavík Thriller
By Arnaldur Indriason, Bernard Scudder
PicadorCopyright © 2004 Arnaldur Indriason
All rights reserved.
The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body. Three words, incomprehensible to Erlendur.
It was the body of a man of about 70. He was lying on the floor on his right side, against the sofa in a small sitting room, wearing a blue shirt and fawn corduroy trousers. He wore slippers on his feet. His hair was starting to thin, almost completely grey. It was stained with blood from a large wound on his head. On the floor not far from the body was a big glass ashtray with sharp corners. It too was covered in blood. The coffee table had been overturned.
This was a basement flat in a two-storey house in Nordurmýri. It stood in a small garden enclosed on three sides by a stone wall. The trees had shed their leaves, which carpeted the garden and covered the ground, and the knotty branches stretched up towards the darkness of the sky. Along a gravel drive which led to the garage, Reykjavík CID were arriving at the scene. The District Medical Officer was expected, he would sign the death certificate. The body had been reported found about 15 minutes earlier. Erlendur, Detective Inspector with the Reykjavík police, was one of the first on the scene. He expected his colleague Sigurdur Óli any minute.
The October dusk spread over the city and the rain slapped around in the autumn wind. Someone had switched on a lamp which stood on a table in the sitting room and cast a gloomy light on the surroundings. In other respects nothing on the scene had been touched. The forensics team were setting up powerful fluorescent lights on a tripod to illuminate the flat. Erlendur noticed a bookcase and a worn suite of furniture, the overturned coffee table, an old desk in one corner, a carpet on the floor, blood on the carpet. The sitting room opened into the kitchen and another door led from it to the den and on to a small corridor where there were two rooms and a toilet.
The police had been notified by the upstairs neighbour. He had come home that afternoon after collecting his two boys from school and it struck him as strange to see the basement door wide open. He could see inside his neighbour's flat and called out to discover whether he was in. There was no answer. He peered inside the flat and called his name again, but there was no response. They'd been living on the upper floor for several years but did not know the old man in the basement well. The elder son, 9 years old, was not as cautious as his father and quick as a flash he was in the neighbour's sitting room. A moment later the child came back and said there was a dead man in the flat, and he really didn't seem too perturbed by it.
"You watch too many movies," the boy's father said and cautiously made his way into the flat where he saw his neighbour lying dead on the sitting-room floor.
Erlendur knew the dead man's name. It was on the doorbell. But to avoid the risk of making an idiot of himself he put on some thin rubber gloves and fished the man's wallet out of a jacket hanging on a peg by the front doorway and found a payment card with a photograph on it. The man's name was Holberg, 69 years old. Dead in his home. Presumed murdered.
Erlendur walked around the flat and pondered the simplest questions. That was his job: investigating the obvious. Forensics handled the mysterious. He could see no signs of a break-in, neither on the windows nor the doors. On first impression the man seemed to have let his assailant into the flat himself. The upstairs neighbours had left footprints all over the front hallway and sitting-room carpet when they came in out of the rain and the attacker must have done the same. Unless he took off his shoes by the front door. It looked to Erlendur as if he had been in too much of a rush to have had the chance to take off his shoes.
The forensic team had brought along a vacuum cleaner to collect the tiniest particles and granules from which to produce clues. They searched for fingerprints and mud that did not belong in the house. They looked for something extraneous. Something that had left destruction in its wake.
For all Erlendur could see, the man had shown his visitor no particular hospitality. He hadn't made coffee. The percolator in the kitchen had apparently not been used in the past few hours. There were no signs of tea having been drunk, no cups taken out of the cupboards. Glasses stood untouched where they belonged. The murdered man had been the orderly type. Everything neat and tidy. Perhaps he did not know his assailant well. Perhaps the visitor had attacked him without any preamble, the moment the door opened. Without taking off his shoes.
Can you murder someone in your socks?
Erlendur looked all around and told himself that he really must organise his thoughts better.
In any case, the visitor had been in a hurry. He hadn't bothered to close the door behind him. The attack itself showed signs of haste, as if it had come out of the blue and without warning. There were no signs of a scuffle in the flat. The man had apparently fallen straight to the floor, struck the coffee table and overturned it. On first impression everything else seemed untouched. Erlendur could see no sign that the flat had been robbed. All the cupboards were firmly closed, the drawers too, a fairly new computer and an old stereo where they belonged, the man's jacket on a peg by the front doorway still contained his wallet, in it one 2000-crown note and two payment cards, one debit and the other credit.
It was as if the attacker had grabbed the first thing at hand and hit the man on the head. The ashtray was made of thick, green glass and weighed at least a kilo and a half, Erlendur thought. A murder weapon there for the taking. The assailant would hardly have brought it with him and left it behind on the sitting-room floor, covered in blood.
These were the obvious clues: The man had opened the door and invited his visitor in or at least walked with him into the sitting room. Probably he knew his visitor, but not necessarily. He was attacked with an ashtray, one hard blow and the assailant quickly made his getaway, leaving the front door open. As simple as that.
Apart from the message.
It was written on a sheet of ruled A4 paper that looked as if it had been torn from a spiral-bound exercise book and was the only clue that a premeditated murder had been committed here; it suggested that the visitor had entered the house with the express purpose of killing. The visitor hadn't been seized suddenly by a mad urge to murder as he stood there on the sitting-room floor. He had entered the flat with the intention of committing a murder. He had written a message. Three words Erlendur could make neither head nor tail of. Had he written the message before going to the house? Another obvious question that needed answering. Erlendur went over to the desk in the corner of the sitting room. It was a sprawl of documents, bills, envelopes and papers. On top of them all lay a spiral-bound exercise book, the corner ripped from one page. He looked for a pencil that could have been used to write the message but couldn't see one. Looking around the desk, he found one underneath. He did not touch anything. Looked and thought.
"Isn't this your typical Icelandic murder?" asked Detective Sigurdur Óli who had entered the basement without Erlendur noticing him and was now standing beside the body.
"What?" said Erlendur, engrossed in his thoughts.
"Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence."
"Yes," said Erlendur. "A pathetic Icelandic murder."
"Unless he fell onto the table and hit his head on the ashtray," Sigurdur Óli said. Their colleague Elínborg was with him. Erlendur had tried to limit the movements of the police, forensics team and paramedics while he strode around the house, his head bowed beneath his hat.
"And wrote an incomprehensible message as he fell?" Erlendur said.
"He could have been holding it in his hands."
"Can you make anything of the message?"
"Maybe it's God," Sigurdur Óli said. "Maybe the murderer, I don't know. The emphasis on the last word is intriguing. Capital letters for HIM."
"It doesn't look hurriedly written to me. The last word's in block capitals but the first two are cursive. The visitor wasn't hurried when he was writing this. But he didn't close the door behind him. What does that mean? Attacks the man and runs out, but writes a cryptic note on a piece of paper and takes pains to emphasise the final word."
"It must refer to him," Sigurdur Óli said. "The body, I mean. It can't refer to anyone else."
"I don't know," Erlendur said. "What's the point in leaving that sort of message behind and putting it on top of the body? What's he trying to say by doing that? Is he telling us something? Is the murderer talking to himself? Is he talking to the victim?"
"A bloody nutter," Elínborg said, reaching down to pick up the message. Erlendur stopped her.
"There may have been more than one of them," Sigurdur Óli said. "Attackers, I mean."
"Remember your gloves, Elínborg," Erlendur said, as if talking to a child. "Don't ruin the evidence."
"The message was written out on the desk over there," he added, pointing at the corner. "The paper was torn out of an exercise book owned by the victim."
"There may have been more than one of them," Sigurdur Óli repeated. He thought he had hit on an interesting point.
"Yes, yes," Erlendur said. "Maybe."
"A bit cold-hearted," Sigurdur Óli said. "First you kill an old man and then you sit down to write a note. Doesn't that take nerves of steel? Isn't it a total bastard who does that sort of thing?"
"Or a fearless one," Elínborg said.
"Or one with a Messiah complex," Erlendur said.
He stooped to pick up the message and studied it in silence.
One huge Messiah complex, he thought to himself.CHAPTER 2
Erlendur got back to the block of flats where he lived at around 10 p.m. and put a ready meal in the microwave to heat through. He stood and watched the meal revolving behind the glass. Better than television, he thought. Outside, the autumn winds howled, nothing but rain and darkness.
He thought about people who left messages and vanished. In such a situation, what would he possibly write? Who would he leave a message for? His daughter, Eva Lind, entered his mind. She had a drug addiction and would probably want to know if he had any money. She had become increasingly pushy in that respect. His son, Sindri Snaer, had recently completed a third period in rehab. The message to him would be simple: No more Hiroshima.
Erlendur smiled to himself as the microwave made three beeps. Not that he had ever thought of vanishing at all.
Erlendur and Sigurdur Óli had talked to the neighbour who found the body. His wife was home by then and talked about taking the boys away from the house and to her mother's. The neighbour, whose name was Ólafur, had said that he and all his family, his wife and two sons, went to school and work every day at 8 a.m. and no-one came home until, at the earliest, 4 p.m. It was his job to fetch the boys from school. They hadn't noticed anything unusual when they had left home that morning. The door to the man's flat had been closed. They'd slept soundly the previous night. Heard nothing. They didn't have much to do with their neighbour. To all intents and purposes he was a stranger, even though they had lived on the floor above him for several years.
The pathologist had yet to ascertain a precise time of death, but Erlendur imagined the murder had been committed around noon. In the busiest time of day as it was called. How could anyone even have the time for that these days? he thought to himself. A statement had been issued to the media that a man named Holberg aged about 70 had been found dead in his flat in Nordurmýri, probably murdered. Anyone who had noticed suspicious movements over the previous 24 hours in the area where Holberg lived was requested to contact the Reykjavík police.
Erlendur was roughly 50, divorced many years earlier, a father of two. He never let anyone sense that he couldn't stand his children's names. His ex-wife, with whom he had hardly spoken for more than two decades, thought they sounded sweet at the time. The divorce was a messy one and Erlendur had more or less lost touch with his children when they were young. They sought him out when they were older and he welcomed them, but regretted how they had turned out. He was particularly grieved by Eva Lind's fate. Sindri Snaer had fared better. But only just.
He took his meal out of the microwave and sat at the kitchen table. It was a one-bedroom flat filled with books wherever there was any room to arrange them. Old family photographs hung on the walls showing his relatives in the East Fjords, where he was born. He had no photographs of himself or of his children. A battered old Nordmende television stood against one wall with an even more battered armchair in front of it. Erlendur kept the flat reasonably tidy with a minimum of cleaning.
He didn't know exactly what it was that he ate. The ornate packaging promised something about oriental delights but the meal itself, concealed within some kind of pastry roll, tasted like hair oil. Erlendur pushed it away. He wondered whether he still had the rye bread he'd bought several days before. And the lamb pâté. Then the doorbell rang. Eva Lind had decided to drop in.
"How's it hanging?" she asked as she darted in through the door and flopped onto the sofa in the sitting room. The way she talked irritated him.
"Aiyee," Erlendur said, and closed the door. "Don't talk that nonsense to me."
"I thought you wanted me to choose my words carefully," said Eva Lind, who had repeatedly been lectured about language by her father.
"Say something sensible then."
It was difficult to tell which personality she was sporting this evening. Eva Lind was the best actress he'd ever known, although this didn't say much as he never went to the theatre or cinema and mostly watched educational programmes on television. Eva Lind's play was generally a family drama in one to three acts and dealt with the best way to get money out of her father. This didn't happen very often because Eva Lind had her own ways of getting hold of money, which Erlendur preferred to know as little about as possible. But occasionally, when she didn't have "a goddamn cent", as she put it, she would turn to him.
Sometimes she was his little girl, snuggling up to him and purring like a cat. Sometimes she was on the brink of despair, stomping around the flat completely out of her mind, laying into him with accusations that he was a bad father for leaving her and Sindri Snaer when they were so young. She could also be coarse, and malicious and evil. But sometimes he thought she was her true self, almost normal, if indeed there is such a thing, and Erlendur felt he could talk to her like a human being.
She wore tattered jeans and a black leather bomber jacket. Her hair was short and jet black, she had two silver rings in her right eyebrow and a silver cross hanging from one ear. She'd had beautiful white teeth once but they were starting to show the signs: when she gave a wide smile it transpired that two upper ones were missing. She was very thin, and her face was drawn, with dark rings under the eyes. Erlendur sometimes felt he could see his own mother's likeness in her. He cursed Eva Lind's fate and blamed his own neglect for the way she had turned out.
"I talked to Mum today. Or rather, she talked to me and asked if I would talk to you. Great having divorced parents."
"Does your mother want something from me?" Erlendur asked in surprise. After 20 years she still hated him. He'd caught just one glimpse of her in all that time and there had been no mistaking the loathing on her face. She'd spoken to him once about Sindri Snaer, but that was a conversation he preferred to forget.
"She's such a snobby bitch."
"Don't talk about your mother like that."
"It's about some filthy rich friends of hers from Gardabaer. Married their daughter off at the weekend and she just did a runner from the wedding. Really embarrassing. That was on Saturday and she hasn't been in touch since. Mum was at the wedding and she's knocked out by the scandal of it. I'm supposed to ask if you'll talk to the parents. They don't want to put an announcement in the papers, bloody snobs, but they know you're in the CID and reckon they can do it all really hush-hush. I'm the one who's supposed to ask you to talk to that crowd. Not Mum. You get it? Never!"
Excerpted from Jar City by Arnaldur Indriason, Bernard Scudder. Copyright © 2004 Arnaldur Indriason. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. At the beginning of the book (pages 4–5), Erlendur says that being a detective means investigating the obvious whereas forensics handles the mysterious. Why do you think he might have said this? What makes forensic evidence more mysterious? If this is so, why do mysteries usually concentrate on the detective rather than the crime scene investigator?
2. Erlendur has a history of family difficulties, particularly with his daughter Eva Lind. Do you think that his past helps him as a detective or is it a distraction? What do you think motivates Erlendur, what drives him?
3. How would this story have been different if it were set in America instead of Iceland? Would the characters be different? Would the crime have been different? Would the investigation methods have been different? What about this case is peculiar to Iceland? What's different about an Icelandic murder?
4. On page 124, Erlendur's mentor Marion Briem told him about Holberg: "Don't let him kill any part of you that you don't want rid of anyway." What do you think he meant? Why was it Holberg that Marion warned Erlendur about and not just the case in general? How could Holberg have that kind of power over him?
5. Given all that is revealed about Holberg throughout the story, everything we know about his past, was Holberg's murder justified? Was justice served? Would Holberg simply have gotten away with his crimes otherwise? Was there any good in Holberg?
6. If you were in Erlendur's place, would you have made some of the same gambles in pursuing the case? Would you have sent Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli to comb through the residents of Húsavík to look for women who might have been raped by Holberg? Would you have had the floor of Holberg's apartment excavated?
7. What is the relationship in Erlendur's mind between his daughter Eva Lind and Audur, Holberg's daughter who died when she was four?
8. What kind of a detective is Erlendur? What sort of a character is he? How does he resemble the people around him? Is he more like the criminals or more like the victims? Could you imagine Erlendur ever doing some other job besides being a detective? If Erlendur had committed the murder, how might he have done things differently?
9. In another episode of the book, Erlendur comes across a case of the woman who had run away from her wedding. What is the parallel between this situation and the case of Holberg's murder?
10. Was Katrín right to keep the origins of Einar secret? Should she have told her husband? How do you think she managed to raise her son without treating him differently? Would there have been a way to tell him that could have avoided all of this?
11. On page 256, Erlendur compares the genetic family tree compiled by the Genetic Research Centre to the message tree that he saw at the wedding. Why does he make this comparison?
12. On page 258, Erlendur compares the database of the genealogical histories of people in Iceland with the secret collection of organ samples that he found earlier. He calls them both "jar cities." Why does he think they are both jar cities? Why is this the title of the book? Is it ethical to have either of these collections when nobody knows about them and nobody has access to them?
13. There's a lot of talk in the story about how things used to be during the time of the rape, particularly with the stealing of organ samples from hospitals and the treatment that Kolbrún received when she reported the rape. What is the parallel between these two things? What does it say about what things were like in Iceland at the time? How had things changed by the time Erlendur was investigating Holberg's death?
14. Ultimately, Einar murdered Holberg and then committed suicide because he couldn't stand the thought that he was like Holberg, or, rather, that he felt he actually was Holberg. In what ways does Einar seem like Holberg? In what ways does he seem more like his mother? Is he justified at all in his fear? Or has he simply been too devastated by recent events to think clearly?
15. How might Einar have gotten away with the murder? Did he want to? Or did he want to get caught? If you had been in his place would you have reacted the way he did? Or would you have tried not to think about it?
16. Why does Eva Lind want to name her child Audur? What parallel is there between her unborn child and Audur? Why does she feel a connection between the two?
17. In the end, the case is solved, Erlendur finds out that his chest pains are not some mortal illness, and he seems to patch things up with his daughter. How might have solving this case and entering into the sordid world of Holberg's crimes helped him?