Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason


I have long had a soft spot for Iceland, partly from Halldór Laxness’s novels, so I was excited to find this mystery set in Reykjavik. The first of Indriðason’s books to be translated into English, Jar City starts with Detective Inspector Erlendur at the scene of a murder. In the sitting room of the basement flat he finds the body of a 70-year-old man who has been hit in the head with a heavy glass ashtray. Although Icelandic murders are not complicated, Erlendur knows this case will be different. In fact, everyone at the crime scene realises that this murder is something quite special, because they have seen the cryptic note left on the body, only three stunning words.

You want to know what they are, don’t you? So did I. When a mystery opens with this sentence “The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body” you don’t expect to have to get through half the book before you find out what those words are.

This trick is what Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill calls an information question. He explains that the first page of any novel should raise a story question—a plot question about what will happen next—but not a simple question about information that the characters in the scene obviously have but the author has chosen not to reveal. Information questions break the contract between writer and reader, a contract especially binding in a murder mystery where the reader is challenged to identify clues and put them together to reach the answer before the detective does.

The note is only the first of several information questions in the book. Another egregious one is the identity of Erlendur’s mentor Marion Briem, whom we are told in a foreword has a gender-neutral name and whose gender is never identified by a pronoun. I’m all in favor of appreciating the spectrum of gender, but here it’s done so coyly that it just feels phoney. Information questions are a cheap way to try to create suspense instead of actually working to create suspense through the story. And they are irritating.

Aside from the information questions and some inconsistent word choices that are probably the fault of the translator (i.e., slang from different countries and different parts of the U.S. inexplicably mixed together), the book is quite good. Indriðason’s prose is appropriately spare, giving the reader a feel for life in Iceland’s capital city.

Erlendur is the usual sloppily dressed, lonely detective. He has two grown children: Eva Lind, a drug addict who provides a subplot for the book, and a son of whom we’re only told that he’s in “rehab”. Presumably that’s for recovery from alcohol or drugs rather than a knee replacement, but once again we are not given that information.

The story behind the murder is laid out well, with deceptive blind alleys and red herrings. Best of all, there is a larger story, a story about an aspect of society specific to Iceland but relevant to all of us.

You want to know what that larger story is, don’t you? Irritating, isn’t it? But in this case, I’m sparing you from a spoiler. If you can get past your irritation, the book is actually a good read.

Have you read any books set in Iceland?

A Traitor to Memory, by Elizabeth George


I’ve been rereading this series of mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. It’s been over ten years since I’ve read any of them, so there are new additions to the series, and even back then I don’t think I’d read all of them. I do remember being astounded when I read her first book, A Great Deliverance. What a story! So many layers. And an unusually textured theme. I couldn’t think about anything else until I finished it.

The series only gets better from there. In this, the 11th book, Lynley is asked by his superior, Superintendent Webberly, to help investigate the hit and run death of Eugenie Davies. Webberly takes a personal interest because his first murder investigation as a DI was the death of Eugenie’s baby.

Interspersed with the investigation are journal entries by Eugenie’s estranged son. Gideon is a child prodigy, now a twenty-eight-year-old virtuoso who suddenly and mysteriously at the start of a long-anticipated concert at Wigmore Hall, lost the ability to play the violin. Along with it, he seems to have lost great chunks of his memory, so the psychiatrist he’s started seeing encourages him to write down what he does remember.

Among the many things George excels at is choosing titles. I am still thinking about this one. Gideon argues about the effect of his loss with his new American friend. Privately tutored as a child, until he met Libby he had no friends beyond his father and his music teacher. She keeps trying to persuade him that he is still a person even if he’s not able to play the violin. Gideon, though, whose life has been devoted to the instrument, thinks otherwise. In his journal, he asks, “How do I exist when the sum and substance of who I am and who I have been for the last twenty-five years is contained in and defined by my music?”

Interestingly, this idea calls up themes from the last book, though George doesn’t actually point that out. In that book, Lynley’s former Detective Sergeant, now demoted to Detective Constable, Barbara Havers, asks herself who she would be without her identity as a detective. This is another thing George excels at: she introduces backstory from earlier books in the series only rarely and only when it is necessary to the current story. Havers’s identity questions are left unspoken here, but add an extra dimension for a reader who recalls them.

Aside from basing identity on our vocation, there remains the consideration of memory. Does Gideon’s memory loss contribute to his feeling that he has ceased to exist? Who are we if we don’t have our memories? And since we rework our memories over the years, who are we if what we remember turns out not to be true? This last question actually get carried forward into the next book in the series.

This question of what constitutes our identity is a tangled one, fascinating in its permutations as it is carried out in various lives. It is especially interesting in the context of murder mysteries, where there are many secrets and where detectives must ferret out the hidden sides of the various characters, which in turns reveal previously unexpected aspects of their own. Everyone is changed. The end of each story leaves everyone—murderer, detectives, suspects, families and friends—in a new place.

Have you read any of Elizabeth George’s novels? Which is your favorite?

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan


I’ve written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: the factors that led to the destruction of a huge ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years. It took only a couple of years for it be ruined, for the dirt to be lifted up into great clouds that blew as far east as New York and Washington and killed people and animals who tried to stay on in what became known as the dust bowl.

My book club discussed who was at fault. Although there were some “suitcase farmers” who tore up the sod for a quick harvest and then disappeared, leaving the ground without even a cover crop, most of the farmers just wanted what anyone might want: a place to work and raise your family.

We talked about how hard it is to weigh future damage against current needs. One person mentioned talking with a friend in Nebraska who works for a farm—a huge agribusiness, as most farms are today—who said farmers today make the same choice: if prices go down, they plant more to make up for it, even knowing that increasing the supply will drive prices down even further.

We talked about the complicity of the government, encouraging people to believe that “dry farming” could work and offering incentives to get people to move to areas previously designated as desert. We also talked about greedy capitalists, like the syndicate that owned XIT ranch who didn’t care if families starved and died as long as the syndicate could pay their shareholders.

So much here resonates with what is happening in the U.S. today. As regulations and rules have been decimated by successive “pro-business” administrations, banks and businesses have gone wild, not caring who gets hurt. Their reckless actions led to the depression of 2008 and to the enormous loss of jobs—real jobs, that is, with benefits and regular hours.

As one of the book club members pointed out, another parallel is the way hard economic times bring out blatant racism, blaming black people for taking jobs that should go to white men. Egan describes the harsh rules against people of color, including the case of two black men jailed for months simply for spending a night in a town where that was not allowed and forced by the judge to dance at their hearing. He quotes speeches by politicians such as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray railing against blacks, Indians and Jews. Sound familiar?

Another parallel was the difference between Hoover’s response to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Hoover believed the cure for the Depression was to prime the pump at the producer end, helping factories and business owners get up and running again. Goods would roll off the lines, prosperity would follow. Roosevelt said it made no sense to gin up the machines of production if people could not afford to buy what came out the factory door.

Trickle-down, anyone? What none of us could understand is why these lessons from the past don’t keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Is it ignorance of what happened not that long ago? Or something darker, that as long as someone has a chance at getting a bit of money or power, he will take it, regardless of who else suffers? Yet many people pulled together in these communities to help each other out.

One thing that is different today is that during the dust bowl years, people who received government assistance—“4,000 of the 5,500 families in six counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle were getting some form of relief” from the government—recognised where help was coming from. They praised Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, “nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population” turned out for Roosevelt’s visit to Amarillo. Instead of railing against big government, they understood that the government was keeping them alive.

As a writer, I was struck on this second reading by Egan’s extensive research and by his deft weaving of information with the personal stories of a handful of people. The combination enables us to see the big picture of what was happening in the Great Plains, from Nebraska to Texas, as well as the impact on individual people.

Have you read a nonfiction book where personal stories have helped bring the narratives to life?

Voice of the Mourning Dove, by Alexis Rotella

voice of the mourning dove

Haiku is more than counting syllables. The one thing most people know about haiku is that it is 17 syllables in three lines of five-seven-five, but many haiku poets writing in English urge us to throw out that rule. There are linguistic reasons related to the differences between English and Japanese, among which is that in Japanese haiku what is counted are sounds rather than syllables.

The most important reason, though, is that focusing on syllable count ignores the true essence of haiku which is to include the reader in a single moment of experience. It may be a profound moment or poignant or ruefully amusing, but it is an emotional one.

I’ve always thought of these as “moments of being”, a phrase Virginia Woolf coined in her essay “A Sketch of the Past” to refer to the sudden, direct experience of the reality behind our everyday life. I’ve also thought of them as awakenings, as in Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive.” They come in a flash and are gone as quickly.

This collection of haiku by award-winning poet, Alexis Rotella, reveals how a tiny poem can capture that fleeting moment.

Even in
my bones
the fog.

In a post on Writer Unboxed, Barbara O’Neal wrote “Ordinary life is where all the miracles are.” She described using the phone app 1 Second Everyday to record a one-second video everyday. This practice reminds her to focus on the present, and that “One moment of detail, one second of true observation, can give us a wealth of information.”

Recently I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Rotella, author of fifty books, former President of the Haiku Society of America, editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, and founder/editor of the senryu journals Brussels Sprout and Prune Juice. She used works by many poets to illustrate aspects of haiku, such as the use of kigo, a word indicating a season.

Country club—
sprinklers going
in the rain.

She said that the pruning necessary to create effective haiku can help us become better prose writers. We may find our skills as “ruthless editors” extending into other aspects of our lives, such as simplifying our living spaces. The pruning is not for its own sake, but to reveal the seed of emotion in that moment, what Rotella calls its energy.

Many of us are trying to be more present in our lives, to practice mindfulness. The haiku in this collection remind us of the beauty that lurks in a second of experience. Rotella says, “The art of haiku is really meditation.”