Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason

After reading Mr. Peanut, I wanted a book with a more straightforward narrative.  If the author said someone was dead, I wanted to take his word for it.  The Scandinavian crime writers seem to be a down-to-earth lot, so I trundled off to Iceland.

Tainted Blood was originally published with the title of Jar City in 2000.  It is Indriðason's second novel but the first to be translated into English, and it won the 2002 Nordic Crime Fiction Award (the Glass Key Prize).

I traveled around Iceland in 1988, and it is a remarkable place. Admittedly, it was easier to feel that you'd fallen off the edge of the earth then, before mobile phones and internet had become ubiquitous, but Iceland fosters the senses of remoteness and isolation better than most other places.  The population of the whole island is well under half a million, and it's largely static.  Very little miscegenation and change is a treasure to geneticists, linguists, and others who are ever harder pressed to find stable populations to study.

Detective Erlendur finds an elderly Reykjavik resident dead on the floor of his basement apartment, bludgeoned with a heavy ashtray.  His colleagues point out that this is slightly different from the typical Icelandic murder in that the killer took the time to write a note before leaving the scene.  They imply that most Icelandic killers are sloppy and scattered, not well-organised, pre-meditated types.  Iceland consistently tops the charts as having the world's lowest murder rate, so any murder is noteworthy, and Erlendur can dedicate time and resources to this case that would only make an American homicide detective weep with envy.

Erlendur fits what seems to be the mold for Nordic detectives:  middle-aged, in poor shape, trying (unsuccessfully) to quit smoking, single (divorced, in his case) and methodical.  Erlendur is unassuming: He freely admits to being a technophobe, and he has no qualms about asking questions that betray his ignorance. More than once, when given some information that he can't readily assimilate, Erlendur asks, "Why are you telling me this?"

This case leads Erlendur into the realm of the genetic research that is taking place in Iceland as researchers of all types are availing themselves of the country's relatively isolated gene pool.   Erlendur, while no expert himself, can quickly grasp that a genetic database of Icelanders could well be a Pandora's box, revealing demons as well as insight.  The data in this case reveals secrets from the past that, for better or worse, Icelanders had chosen to keep to themselves.

The case also brings Erlendur (very reluctantly) into the world of organ collecting.  Where do you think medical schools get the organs with which to teach? one pathologist asks him.  The Icelandic laws and customs regarding organ harvesting seem vague and largely unobserved, and some of the doctors whom Erlendur interviews express their view that a corpse is nothing but a carcass to be plundered as benefits medical research.  One asks if Erlendur is aware of Jar City.  Erlendur, appalled, shakes his head and asks where that might be.  Jar City had been a section of a Reykjavik university hospital lined with formalin-filled jars containing sample organs of all types.  I expect this idea would horrify many readers far less than it does Erlendur, but it does provoke some thought about medical ethics and sensitivity to people's views about the handling of the dead.

So, in answer to my initial wish, yes -- when  Indriðason told me that one of his characters was no longer living, that person was in fact dead.  But not necessarily buried, or at least not in entirety or in perpetuity.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.