Nordic Noir: Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

Nordic Noir is the name given to the genre of Scandinavian Crime Fiction which has become quite successful in recent years in many countries around the world, a success that covers not only books but television series as well. Nordic Noir is said to be made up of three important factors; setting, languages and heroes, as the novels more often than not are made up of series which tell the story of a certain, usually depressed, detective or detectives (for those interested in Nordic Noir I recommend the works of Barry Forshaw). Although not technically part of Scandinavia, Iceland nevertheless has their share of Nordic Noir writers, the most famous Icelandic crime writer being Arnaldur Indridason.

Arnaldur Indridason has been one of Iceland’s most popular writers since the publication of his first novel, Synir Duftsins (Sons of Earth) in 1997, frequently topping the Icelandic bestseller lists. He is the recipient of The Glass Key award (the only one to have won the award two years in a row in 2002 and 2003) as well as the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award (2005). He has sold over six million copies in over 25 countries and his books have been translated to at least 21 languages.

Jar City was the first of his novel to be translated and published in the UK (it was originally called Tainted Blood but the name was changed in conjunction with the movie release) in 2006. Here is an original cover for the USA from 2006:


This cover is quite bleak, very noir actually in black and white (perhaps saving on colours with a first book from an unknown author?) with a figure of a man and a scary looking house. For commercial purposes it doesn’t really say much about the content (how much does “A Reykjavik Thriller” tell an American audience?) . However, the original cover released in the UK in 2005 and then again in 2006 with the new title tell a different story:



These are much more informative; the book is an international bestseller, it’s a murder mystery, the winner of the Gold Dagger, a major motion picture, it has a quote from the Times. Even if a reader doesn’t know anything about the book there are plenty of things to make him or her interested. There are also many Nordic Noir elements; the snow, the red (colour of blood), and swings that look positively scary in the dark.

Here the US version has been updated, and much improved:


This version looks more modern and is at least described as “a thriller”, with a quote from a critic accompanying it as well. The atmosphere is clearer now that the half of the image is not taken over entirely for use of the title and author name, and the whole design is fittingly quite ominous. The next cover, also from 2006, from Picador is not as indicative of crime fiction however:


It reminds me more of a medical drama, perhaps because the plot centers around DNA, however I think it would be difficult for a reader to know what kind of books this is. It says this is a “An inspector Erlendur novel” but as this is the first book published about that character in the UK, how would a customer know what that means? This would not work very well in a digital environment as the smaller text would be ineligible.

It seems to have taken time to figure out the best design for a novel such as this, as these examples show. Another thing a publisher must keep in mind is the best way to brand a book so that customers will remember and hopefully become loyal to it. As the brand is usually not the publisher or the imprint it is normally the author – except, like in this case, when it might be difficult for customer to remember them (Arnaldur Indriðason is not the easiest name to for a foreign readership). So in this case an effort has been made to make the series the brand; the US calls these books “A Reykjavik Thriller”, by 2009 the UK publisher had made up the “A Reykjavík Murder Mystery” series, a title which can be found on all of Arnaldur’s subsequent novels:


700x0Here you can begin to recognize the signature look; Jar City – A Reykjavík Murder Mystery, accompanied by the same font, the same place at the top for the title, the same place at the bottom for the author name, and a beautiful, mysterious, almost other-worldly image (of course of Icelandic nature) in a bold, easily detectable colour, which will stand out on a digital device and as a thumbnail. You can see that the look of the book has developed through the years while the standard, recognizable cover design for Nordic Noir has been defined over the years (the focus being on a bleak, desolated, chilly nature, where anything can happen). With this series I must say I believe that they have designed these covers perfectly for Nordic Noir as well as for a digital age – I even want my own copies for my bookshelf, though I as an Icelander have no reason to read a translation of Arnaldur’s works.