Recently awarded a Golden Dagger for his second book in the series, Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indriadason's first book Tainted Blood, or Jar City as it was originally titled in English, is a taut, sparsely written police procedural set in a grey, cold and wet Reykjavik, Iceland.
An elderly man is murdered in his flat and initially it seems he has been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Detective Erlendur is not so sure, based on a rather cryptic and inexplicable note found on the body and despite his colleagues amusement and scepticism, he continues to reject the easy solution.
Erlendur is a divorced, lonely fifytish, shambolic, disorganised man with family problems. His children are both drug-addicts, his daughter is a particular worry and his ex-wife will not have anything to do with him. He is increasingly suffering from chest pains and just does not look after himself, but he is saved from becoming a cliche by his self-awareness and his reactions to his family. He is frustrated by his daughter and as she attempts to draw closer he reacts against her and her life. When his ex-wife asks for help to look for the missing daughter of friends of his, he helps, but he is not really sure why he gets involved and he does not like what he finds when he does.
Iceland is also an unexpected setting. There are interesting points of difference in their culture not the least of which being everybody uses first names there, even in the telephone directory. Murder is not so common in Erlendur's Reykjavik but crime definitely doesn't seem to surprise anyone. Criminals are known to the police, and names and events are dragged up from many years ago that seem very vivid in everyone's memory.
As they investigate further, it is clear that the victim has a nasty past and whilst it seems that somehow that past has caught up with him, his cohorts from those days cannot be involved and the trail eventually leads Erlendur to a child's grave.
In many ways Tainted Blood is a very traditional police procedural with some interesting touches and twists. The writing is sparse, elegant and very visual. The plot is well constructed, a little predictable towards the end as the layers start to unfold, but the story by that stage is so sad and so compelling that you are drawn along regardless. The personal story of Erlendur does not detract from the investigation and adds a level to his personality that makes him feel like a real person that you can empathise with.
This is a good, solid police procedural with a compelling and real central Detective that avoids becoming a direct copy of his counterparts, Kurt Wallender and John Rebus, but could easily become somebody else to worry about.