Book review: The Hummingbird, by Kati Hiekkapelto

14 10 2016

Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish writer, punk vocalist, and performance artist who has worked as a special-needs teacher for immigrant children. Her crime fiction has been nominated for the Glass Key and Petrona awards. She’s written three novels to date: The Hummingbird (Kolibri, 2013, translated by David Hackston) is her debut.


Detective-Inspector Fekete Anna (known to her colleagues as Anna Fekete) is a Hungarian-Yugoslav immigrant newly stationed in the city in Finland’s north where she spent her teenage years. Her hopes for a gentle introduction to her new job within the Violent Crimes Unit are dashed on her first day by two deeply-disturbing cases, which each cut to the core of Anna’s identity: one, a claim of impending honour violence against an immigrant schoolgirl, and two, the brutal shotgun slaying of a jogger in the parkland where Anna herself jogs. It’s not helped, too, that her assigned partner, Esko Niemi (who takes an almost instant dislike to Anna), is a middle-aged detective whose racist tendencies are scarcely more well-concealed than his drinking problem. But Anna finds allies within the Violent Crimes Unit as well, chiefly Sari Jokikokko-Pennanen, the other female officer on the team. Hiekkapelto gets under the skin of each of these characters (and several others besides), presenting them as fully-realised, three-dimensional, complex individuals whose lives intrude on their duties and vice versa. I may well be mistaken in attributing the plain-spoken, cogent nonsentimentality of the prose to some peculiarly Finnish characteristic, but it’s a style I’ve noticed also in the work of Johanna Sinisalo (Birdbrain) and Tove Jansson (her adult fiction, of course, but also the last two Moomin books).

The schoolgirl’s honour-violence claim is withdrawn (a retraction which Anna refuses to accept at face value, despite being instructed by her supervisor Virkkunen to drop the case). And there are very few tangible clues at the site of the jogger’s slaying, since a downpour during the night of the murder has washed away almost everything of potential forensic value. A second, near-identical homicide, forty kilometres from the site of the first, reveals new evidence, but nothing ties the two crimes together except for the plastic necklace of an Aztec god which is found in the pocket of each victim. Every trail of evidence which the officers of the VCU follow leads not to a definitive indication of any suspect, but to further confusion and contradiction.

I haven’t made a study of Scandinavian crime-fiction debuts, but Hiekkapelto’s is impressive, every bit as assured and immersive as those of Mari Jungstedt (Unseen) and Åsa Larsson (The Savage Altar). (As it happens, Åsa Larsson is name-checked in The Hummingbird, as one of three authors—Chandler and (I presume Håkan) Nesser are the others—whose books on a suspect’s shelf are indicative, in Anna’s opinion, of ‘good taste in crime fiction’.) There’s an enviable sense of grit to Anna’s backstory, to the portrayal of a troubled community in Finland’s hinterlands, to the multilayered depiction of the outsider’s lot within a country that is at times generous, at times mistrustful and insular. And Anna herself is a marvellous creation, an unorthodox left-of-centre detective who drinks and smokes more than she wishes to, runs less often than she feels she should, and maintains an awkward interaction with both the Finland which adopted her as a child and the Serbia to which her mother has again retreated. The writing, too, is very well executed: the book is a joy to read, and the sense of mystery holds to the last few pages. I felt that the resolution was wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor criticism given the absolute surefootedness in every preceding chapter.

Oh, and (though I know I shouldn’t be fixated on such things) the book even has a low-key Moomin reference. What’s not to like?




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