Book review: Against the Wall, by Jarkko Sipilä

27 12 2016

Jarkko Sipilä is a Finnish crime journalist and author, with more than twenty books (mostly police procedurals headed up by Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamäki of the Violent Crime Unit) to his credit.

againstthewall

Against the Wall (Seinää vasten, 2008, translated by Peter Ylitalo Leppa) is the first book in Sipilä’s longstanding ‘Helsinki Homicide’ series to have been translated into English, though it’s not, I think, the first book in the series per se. It was awarded Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2009.

When small-time crook and customs informant Jerry Eriksson is slain in a deserted garage by a well-placed gunshot to the forehead, the police have two problems: identifying a motive for what appears to be a gangland hit on someone who shouldn’t have been moving in those circles, and finding the killer. Juha Saarnikangas, the man hired by the killer to dump the corpse, has only one problem: how to stay alive after failing to dispose of the body of his former acquaintance.

Sipilä’s writing is clipped and noirish; the story, spanning a week of investigation, is relayed in a head-hopping style that encompasses the perspectives of a dozen or more protagonists (on both sides of the law), with probably the most page-time devoted to the petty criminal Saarnikangas, to the double-dealing hitman Markus Markkonen, to the undercover cop Suhonen / Suikkanen, and to the detective Anna Joutsamo. The multiplicity of character viewpoints can get a little dizzying, particularly since the prose is intentionally flat and lacking in some of the verbal ornamentation that could have conferred greater emotional resonance. Against this, the book conveys an authoritative familiarity with both policing practices and criminal activity: the consequence, one presumes, of Sipilä’s career as a crime reporter. There’s also a fair degree of commentary on Finnish society, much of it of a historical / architectural bent, offered as the various characters follow each other around Helsinki: these side-notes are welcome for the most part, adding as they do colour to an otherwise deliberately muted presentation, though they don’t always sit entirely naturally in the characters’ mouths, just as the jokes told by some of the participants sometimes fall flat. If it’s immersive characterisation you’re seeking, Against the Wall might disappoint in comparison, say, to the more reflective Finnish crime fiction of Kati Hiekkapelto or Antti Tuomainen; but if you’re predominantly concerned with a tautly-plotted and credibly detailed police procedural with a strong sense of place, you may well enjoy this.

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