Book review: The Defenceless, by Kati Hiekkapelto

4 11 2016

Alongside her activities as a performance artist, punk vocalist, and special-needs teacher, Kati Hiekkapelto has quickly established herself as one of Finland’s edgiest and most accomplished crime-fiction writers. I’ve previously reviewed Hiekkapelto’s debut novel, The Hummingbird, here.

thedefenceless

The Defenceless (Suojattomat, 2014, translated by David Hackston) is the second novel in the ‘Anna Fekete’ series. It was shortlisted for the Petrona Award and the Glass Key Award, and was awarded Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2014.

Sammy, a Pakistani overstayer and subutex (buprenorphine) addict who fears that deportation to his homeland is a certain death sentence, is visiting the apartment of a low-level drug dealer when an altercation leads to the death of the dealer’s elderly neighbour. Later the same night, Gabriella, the young Hungarian hired help for a well-to-do Finnish family, is driving home when, on a deserted and snowbound road, she runs over an elderly pajama-clad man who had ostensibly been sleeping on the frozen road surface. Senior Constable Anna Fekete is assigned a role in Gabriella’s case, as well as handling reports relating to the disappearance of an elderly woman from a suburban apartment block. It transpires that there’s a disturbing connection between the investigations, heightened by the backdrop of an impending turf war between drug gangs, and Sammy gradually falls into the frame as a key figure. But is Sammy perpetrator or victim?

There’s a hard edge of social conscience underpinning Hiekkapelto’s precisely-etched police procedurals; the reader is subtly pressed to question his or her own viewpoints on a variety of thorny issues. Which is not to say, by any means, that the text reads like a tract: on the contrary, what comes through loudest is the abiding sense that there are no easy answers, that the ideal solution is merely the least worst. And the author does an enviable job of thoroughly getting into the heads of a bunch of disparate characters—from the geographically- and culturally-conflicted Anna herself, to her hard-drinking, chain-smoking racist colleague Esko, to the desperate and doom-struck Sammy—while never allowing the story to flag.

While not seeking to make any invidious comparisons, it’s worth juxtaposing Hiekkapelto’s work with the similarly-effective Antti Tuomainen, whose work (such as his noirish future-crime climate catastrophe piece The Healer) has a tendency to focus on environmental concerns rather than on the intersection of citizenship, immigration, crime, family, and cultural difference that forms the nexus of the Anna Fekete novels. There seems to be something in the work of these two Finnish crime writers that goes beyond what I’ve encountered in the other examples of Scandinavian crime I’ve read.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that The Defenceless is, front and centre, a crime novel, with a detailed investigation and a consistently plausible crime, but it feels like something larger than that. And (if you’ll pardon the expression) it’s very well executed. Anna is a wonderfully complex character, but Hiekkapelko can also make us care about characters that we may only meet through a dozen lines or so. Her prose is vital and vivid, and she’s created something quite special with this series.

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