Book review: The Exiled, by Kati Hiekkapelto

12 12 2016

Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish special-needs teacher, punk vocalist, and crime fiction writer whose mystery novels have already marked her as a talent to watch. I’ve previously reviewed her debut, The Hummingbird, and her second book, The Defenceless.

theexiled

The Exiled, Hiekkapelto’s most recent book, is the third in her ‘Anna Fekete’ series focussing on the investigations of a headstrong and resourceful police officer in a remote Finnish city. But this time, Anna is back ‘home’—or what she feels ought to feel like home—in the Hungarian-speaking town of Kanisza, in Serbia, from which she, her mother, and her brother had fled in the early nineties during the fighting that accompanied Yugoslavia’s breakup. She’s there on vacation, visiting her family for her summer holidays. But her plans for relaxation go out the window when, at an open-air wine bar with friends on her first evening, her bag is snatched by a young man in black and a young girl in a red skirt. Anna and her friends give chase, but the thieves elude them. A day or so later, Anna’s bag, missing her credit cards, passport, and money, is found on the banks of the town’s river Tisza, alongside the body of a drowning victim. Anna is able to determine that the dead man is indeed the bag thief, but she’s unimpressed with the rapidity with which the local police shut down any investigation into the death. Convinced there’s more to the incident than the police are letting on, Anna decides to take matters into her own hands …

Hiekkapelto seems to be getting better with each book; I reckon The Exiled is her best yet. Its Serbian setting feels gritty and realistic (it helps, I presume, that Hiekkapelto has worked for a time, as a teacher, in this very pocket of Hungarian-speaking Serbia), and Anna’s removal from her Finnish comfort zone allows substantial scope to explore the tension between her Balkan and her Baltic selves. The interplay between Anna and her mother is also etched in much greater detail, revealing sides of Anna’s character not really shown in the previous books. The region’s role as a staging point for the masses of refugees hoping to find safety within Europe’s borders is also an important component of the book (just as questions of nationality, residence, and belonging also underpin the first two books): as a former refugee herself, Anna has considerable sympathy with those waiting in desperate circumstances for a chance at a better life, though it’s starkly apparent that not all of her old neighbours share this sympathy. In amongst this tangle of human suffering, nationalistic tension, and family pressure to conform, Anna must identify the perpetrator for a murder for which she cannot even guess at the motive … and she must do this without assistance, and in the face of active resistance from the local police force.

This has to be among the best series in Scandinavian crime fiction today. Hiekkapelto writes with an affronting honesty and a clarity that other writers would do well to aspire to.

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