My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jar City, the first mystery by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason that features Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson of the Reykyavik police, traced the origins of a modern-day murder to a heinous crime that occurred some forty years before. The solution to the mystery turned on the idea of Iceland as a very insular society with a shallow genetic pool where most people are at least distantly related.
In this second book in the series, we again get a very cold case - something that occurred during World War II. But was it truly a crime or simply a situation where justice was at last served?
The story begins with the image of a baby gnawing on a human bone. A young medical student had dropped by a children's birthday party to pick up his young brother who was attending. As he sits waiting for the child to be ready to leave, he watches the honoree's younger sister who is gnawing on something that at first appears to be a toy, but, when he gets a closer look, he realizes it is actually a section of a human rib. He alerts the child's mother who asks the baby's brother what he knows about it. He takes them to the place where he picked up the interesting "rock" that he gave his sister to play with, and, there, they find more bones.
The police are called. Inspector Erlendur and his team show up and discover what appears to be a very old burial. They contact an archaeologist who assembles a team and begins to dig to free the bones. It is an excruciatingly slow process, accomplished with small hand tools.
While Erlendur is waiting around at the scene, he receives a cryptic and frantic phone call from his estranged daughter, Eva Lind, asking him to help her, but she hangs up before he can find out where she is. Eva Lind, whom we met in the first novel, is now about seven months pregnant and still a drug addict. She had had a huge fight with her father and left his apartment weeks before and he's had no contact with her since. Now he must try to find her.
Erlendur tracks Eva Lind through some truly awful drug squats with residents that seem barely human. He discovers abused and neglected children along the way and calls social services for them. Finally, on a slim chance, he goes to a maternity home and finds Eva Lind there, passed out and bleeding on the grounds.
She is taken to the hospital, in a coma, and the baby is delivered stillborn. She lingers there between life and death, never waking from the coma, with Erlendur spending as much time as he can by her side.
But back to the old bones. The initial assessment is that they are 60 to 70 years old and Erlendur begins poking into the history of the community where they had been found, trying to find out who might have lived on that site during the period in question. It's a complicated investigation, but, ultimately, he and his team do come up with a name and they uncover a horror.
At this point, the story develops on a parallel course. We learn of the family who lived where the bones were found, two adults and three children, one of them disabled. We also learn, haltingly, of the brutality which the woman and her children endured for years at the hands of the abusive husband and father. Meanwhile, the archaeologists continue their dig and eventually uncover a second set of bones on top of the first. They are the bones of a tiny baby or perhaps fetus.
One of the things pointed out by the story is how little help there was for a brutalized wife during the period when the abuse occurred. When the police actually came to investigate, they would typically ask the woman whether she had been drinking and would end up shaking hands with the husband before they went back to their station. In some places, of course, that attitude hasn't changed much in seventy years.
It's interesting to learn of this dysfunctional family in comparison to Erlendur's own fractured clan. His marriage had been broken when his children were young, and he left them. His ex-wife subsequently refused to allow him any access to the children and poisoned their minds against him, and it seems that Erlendur didn't try very hard to change that. But in this book, we do learn more of his background, his childhood, and why he behaved as he did and why he is such a morose, depressive character.
I thought Indriðason did a very good job of tying all of these disparate plot lines together and showing their interconnectedness. He also used them very skillfully to develop fully realized characters with whom one can begin to empathize. In doing so, he created a very interesting and enjoyable read.
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