Book review: The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

18 10 2017

Antti Tuomainen is a Finnish crime novelist and former copywriter. He’s written seven novels to date, each one (so far as I know) a standalone, and has won the Clue award for Best Finnish Crime Novel as well as shortlistings for the Petrona and Glass Key Awards. Four of his novels have been translated into English: I’ve reviewed the other three of these (The Healer, The Mine, and Dark As My Heart) previously.

TheManWhoDied

In The Man Who Died (Mies joka kuoli, 2016, translated by David Hackston), Jaakko Kaunismaa (the somewhat misleadingly-identified titular character) has a few problems. He’s been poisoned; his wife Taina is cheating on him with Petri, the family firm’s driver and apprentice; and his go-ahead little matsutake export business is about to face some seriously well-resourced and criminally-aggressive competition from the Hamina Mushroom Company, which turns out to be a consortium of former sportsmen and convicted murderers whose combined knowledge of the mushroom-harvesting business would not suffice to deface a postage stamp. But in the days that remain for Jaakko to put his affairs in order before irreversible organ failure puts a stop to him, he’s determined at least to find out who his killer is, and to discover, if possible, what’s at the root of all this sudden industrial espionage.

Now, the above could all be the recipe for a perfectly straight-sided and dark little tale, and Tuomainen is certainly capable of handing in such a novel. He’s chosen, though, to balance the mordant grimness of Jaakko’s predicament with a biting whimsicality, as Jaakko, freed by his impending demise of many of the mores and strictures of conventionally civilised society, sets to on the task of putting things right while he still has time to do so. Of course, deciding on the best course of action isn’t straightforward: he can’t trust his wife, he can’t trust his new business rivals, he dare not go to the police following an unfortunate misunderstanding over a katana. And he certainly can’t trust the delivery boy who can’t keep it in his pants. But there aren’t that many other people in his immediate circle, and he must work with what he’s got … even when what he’s got is incurable poisoning and a group of people who, for one reason or another, want him out of the way.

The mix of high drama and black comedy is a difficult one to pull off, but Tuomainen manages admirably. There are scenes in the book that definitely and unforcedly provoke laughter, without the humour of the situation dulling the tension in any way, and the dialogue is a blend of bluntly plain speaking, heavily-guarded doublespeak, and wonderfully mixed message. It’s a different style of levity than that found in Raymond Chandler’s ‘Philip Marlowe’ novels, but the author has, I think, Chandler’s sense of timing and a clear precision with language. It helps, too, that Jaakko is such an appealing and relatable character. All up, The Man Who Died is a somewhat surprising but well-executed departure from Tuomainen’s previous style, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he does next.

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