This was an interesting book to follow Tana French's The Secret Place, as both novels start with a victim getting conked on the head with a strange implement (a hoe in French’s novel; an ash tray here). Jar City also gives me food for thought in my quest to figure out what characterizes a “literary thriller.”
Jar City is a police procedural mystery/thriller from Iceland, and it is the first of this author’s books to be translated into English (a film version was also made in 2006). The story starts when an older man is found dead in his basement apartment along with a strange note. The main detective, Erlendur, and his team must decide if this was a random robbery-gone-wrong or if the victim knew his killer. To that end, the detectives set out to figure out the victim’s backstory, and they are surprised at what they find.
Hint: the title here is important. What is a “jar city?”
I am a fan of police procedurals, and this one has many of the key components of the genre: a not-always-lovable main detective with bad habits and a good heart; short chapters with suspenseful endings that keep you turning the pages; and pacing that ramps up toward a “thrilling” finale. However, unlike most procedurals I have read, this one is not explicitly gruesome (the crime(s) are terrible, but much of the detail is left to your imagination). I could read this one at night and not have problems falling asleep.
I do wish that there were more Iceland in the writing – I want to see this country through the book. The story seems to be coated in a heavy film of rain, with a lot of damp atmosphere but not much detail.
So why is The Secret Place a “literary thriller,” while Jar City is shelved in the mystery section of the bookstore? They do have many elements in common. But, ultimately, I think that Tana French is trying to grapple with Big Ideas (in the Secret Place, she wants to explore girls’ loyalty and the limits of friendship), and the detective story just helps her get there. Jar City and others like it are mostly about finding out who-dunnit. It would still be worth considering why Robert Galbraith/Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels get pegged as “literary.” Is it all name-recognition and marketing? Or is there something else that distinguishes her mysteries from genre series?