Book review: My First Murder, by Leena Lehtolainen

6 03 2018

Leena Lehtolainen is a prolific Finnish writer who is most well known for her ‘Maria Kallio’ series of police procedurals which now stands at thirteen volumes, the first eight of which have been released in English translation. Her work has won Finnish crimewriting awards and has also been shortlisted for the Glass Key award.


My First Murder (Ensimmäinen murhani, 1993, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the first book in the Maria Kallio series, and sets Maria as the principal investigating officer on the murder of Tommi Peltonen, a singer in an amateur choir and a bit of a playboy. Peltonen, felled by a blunt-force blow to the head on the jetty at the site of the choir’s weekend retreat, is known to Maria from her student years (as indeed are several members of the choir who remain the prime suspects for the killing); but despite this conflict of interest, she’s kept on the case because of staff shortages and a hopelessly alcoholic supervisor, and must muddle through while trying to keep separate her police persona from her private life.

The crime at the book’s core is well-framed, the investigation is both logical and beset by an interesting enough array of setbacks, the characterisation is effective, and the embedded social commentary and reflections on gender politics (Maria is painfully aware of her ‘figurehead’ status within the predominantly-male police force) are genuinely of interest … and yet the prose often struggles to come to life. It’s technically sound, but lacks the assurance and the solid pacing of the later works in the series. Lehtolainen is clearly an important author in the annals of Finnish crime fiction, but this debut is less rewarding than its successors.


Book review: Below the Surface, by Leena Lehtolainen

7 11 2017

Leena Lehtolainen is a prolific Finnish crime novelist who has won several awards and has been shortlisted for the Glass Key award. She’s most widely known for her long-running series of ‘Maria Kallio’ police procedurals, of which I’ve previously reviewed Copper Heart and Before I Go.


Below the Surface (Veren vimma, 2003, translated by Owen T Witesman) is the eighth in the Maria Kallio series, and only recently released in English translation. It opens with the execution-style killing of Annukka Hackman, a journalist / biographer whose project at the time of her death was the upcoming unauthorised biography of Finnish rally-driving superstar Sasha Smeds. Those around Smeds and Hackman—his parents, wife, and brother; his manager; her husband, stepdaughter, and jilted lover—certainly have reason enough between them to see the book quashed, or to stop its author from probing further; but who could have committed the act? Maria and her team climb on what seems like an endless merry-go-round of interrogation, analysis, and second-guessing, complicated by internal divisions, divided loyalties, and an accusation of sexual harrassment between those under Lieutenant Kallio’s command.

I’ve been a little slow to warm to Lehtolainen’s series, but I strongly enjoyed this one. There’s a kind of kitchen-sink clutter to the interplay between the daily complications of Maria’s home life (and those of colleagues, witnesses, and suspects) and the imperatives of investigation, similar in some ways to the writing of Henning Mankell (although Kallio is much less of a grumpy bugger than Wallander): Lehtolainen is very good at ‘busying-up’ a story in a way that feels natural and credible. The characters, too, are a strongly-drawn mix of personalities, and the pretext for the murder, while unexpected, is not exactly left-field-unexpected. While I’ve previously felt that her novels have sometimes been too obviously ‘themed’, that isn’t the case with Below the Surface, and I finished the book with a continuing interest in the characters’ varied lives (which, I think, is the mark of a good series novel). All up, this is a solid and intriguing procedural, and I hope we see these translations continuing.

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.


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.

Book review: As White As Snow, by Salla Simukka

10 10 2017

Salla Simukka is a Finnish novelist, critic, and translator, known mostly for her YA fiction (for which she’s won the Topelius Award). To date, only her ‘Snow White’ trilogy—the first book of which, As Red As Blood, I’ve reviewed here—has been translated into English.


As White As Snow (Valkea kuin lumi, 2013, translated by Owen F Witesman) sees Simukka’s seventeen-year-old protagonist Lumikki Andersson on holiday in Prague, soaking up the summer heat and the architectural opulence. But her relaxation gets diverted by the intrusion of a woman, Lenka, who seems to be a couple of years older than Lumikki, who speaks reasonably fluent Swedish, and who claims to be only-child Lumikki’s older sister, the result of a holiday dalliance between her mother (now dead) and Lumikki’s father Peter Andersson. Lenka’s story, though sparse, rings true to Lumikki, and it throws her into a tailspin that gets progressively deeper as she realises just how strange and reclusive is the extended family into which Lenka was adopted following her mother’s death. Is it possible that Lenka has some kind of ulterior motive, beyond the claim of kinship, which explains her efforts to forge a link with Lumikki?

This is a compact, tense story that, to a modest degree, suffers from The Two Towers syndrome: it’s neither the introduction nor the resolution and, despite being mostly self-contained, does rely, in part, on its predecessor to establish the character of Lumikki. Simukka does manage some good riffs on the idea of identity and of belonging; the further teasing-out of the backstory Lumikki has with the mysterious Blaze is employed to good effect; and the book’s dance between action, tension and paranoia as restrained as it is immersive—the author doesn’t waste words. Nonetheless, the story ultimately felt a little slight to me: it doesn’t entirely live up to the promise and the weight of the preceding volume. (It remains to be seen how the final volume, As Black As Ebony, fares; I’ll get to it in due course. Among other things, it’ll be interesting to determine whether it, too, contains significant Moomin references, as have both its predecessors.)

I think my main problem with As White As Snow was that neither Lenka nor the journalist Jiri, the two characters tasked mainly with the job of acting as foils for Lumikki, is entirely up to the role: there simply doesn’t seem to be enough depth to Jiri, and Lenka is frustratingly constrained by a personality which never truly flares into life. (Indeed, rather more of the interpersonal heavy lifting is provided by the flashback scenes involving the absent Blaze than comes about through Lumikki’s interactions with Jiri or even with Lenka.) Overall, though, the book is admirably propulsive, particularly in the second half, and the additional character development afforded Lumikki is reason enough to keep faith with the series.

Book review: Pet Shop Girls, by Anja Snellman

23 09 2017

Anja Snellman is a Finnish journalist, poet, and novelist with over twenty books to her name. Though some of these have been translated into several languages, to date only one of her novels has been translated into English. She was awarded the Pro Finlandia Medal (a civic honour bestowed upon distinguished Finnish artists and writers) in 2007.


Pet Shop Girls (Lemmikkikaupan tytöt, 2007, translated by Scott Kaukonen and Helena Halmari) concerns the disappearance of teenagers Jasmin Martin and Linda Rossi, Jasmin’s mother Sara’s quest to come to grips with her daughter’s ongoing absence (especially after Linda’s body is discovered, some months later, in the remains of a warehouse following a fire), and pathways into prostitution and sexual slavery. It’s a mosaic novel comprising the adult Jasmin’s reflections on events leading up to the death, fifteen years after her abduction, of her wealthy ‘owner’; extracts from the book Monday, written by Sara and exploring her experiences as a suddenly-childless mother; and a recounting of the developing involvement of immigrant Randi Suraweera in, first, the titular ‘pet shop’ and, later, the underage-prostitution racket (the ‘Wet Pet Club’) for which the pet shop serves as a front business. The content at the book’s core is undeniably confronting (and, I suspect, triggering for some), though the writing is far from lurid: the focus is predominantly on the emotional journey of daughter and mother and their sometimes-inexplicable inability to connect as each copes in her own way with the circumstances of Jasmin’s abduction and its lingering aftermath. Shorn of its specifics (and the text is consistently careful never to identify its locations), it’s a book more about loss, hazard, and quiet fury than about anything else. And although it’s presented as a ‘crime’ novel (by a publisher specialising in English translations of Finnish crime fiction), it’s really more a novel of injustice.

The book’s scrapbook composition and fifteen-year span doesn’t permit as much tension (nor, it seems, as many answered questions) as might be expected from the subject matter, but the characterisation of Jasmin and Sara is a strength, and a lengthy historical epilogue provides a context that, in some measure, is lacking from the novel’s sometimes-disjointed narrative fragments.

Book review: Cold Courage, by Pekka Hiltunen

14 09 2017

Pekka Hiltunen is a Finnish magazine editor and crime fiction writer. He is best known for his three ‘Studio’ novels, featuring the London-based Finnish expatriates Lia Pajana and Mari Rautee and centring on the activities of the covert-activities ‘Studio’ set up by Mari. He has won the Clue award and the Helsingin Sanomat prize for best debut novel, and has been shortlisted for the Glass Key award.


Cold Courage (Vilpittomasti sinun, 2011, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the first of the ‘Studio’ novels. It starts with an incident that impinges itself on graphic designer Lia’s commute one weekday morning, where an abandoned car in Holborn Circus is subsequently revealed to have contained in its boot the naked body of a grievously mutilated and unidentified woman. Lia becomes obsessed, over the coming weeks, with the murder and with the apparent lack of police progress on any aspects of the case, but she’s powerless to contribute anything which might assist the investigation … until, at her birthday celebration at a local pub with work colleagues, she meets Mari, a confident and exceptionally astute woman whose ability to ‘read’ a stranger’s motivations, prejudices, and attitudes purely on the basis of small behavioural ‘tells’ is exceptional.

Lia and Mari soon become friends but, while Mari seems to know a substantial amount about Lia’s work (and is able to intuit much of her homelife through her unparalleled observational skills), Lia knows much less about the mysterious Mari’s dealings in London society. It’s later revealed that the independently-wealthy Mari heads up a small group of highly-talented people—an actor, a hacker, a security specialist, and a props designer—with whom she carries out meticulously-planned Mission: Impossible-style exercises designed to redress what she sees as the ills of society. Mari’s current self-imposed ‘mission’ is to thwart the burgeoning political ambitions of fringe nationalist party leader Arthur Fried, and she sees a way to include Lia in her machinations towards a takedown of Fried. Lia, still troubled some months after the Holborn Circus incident, reluctantly agrees provided that Mari also deploys her team on the task of finding the killers of the still-unidentified woman in the car boot …

There are aspects of Cold Courage which test the reader’s credulity: how effective could Mari’s covert-operations team be while still managing, for years, to escape detection by the authorities? How long could such a group operate before an inadvertent or deliberate disclosure by those they employ on contract—receptionists, security personnel, legal advisers—brought them to public awareness? This, I think, is the weak point in Hiltunen’s concept. But the rest of it—the characterisation, particularly of the principal viewpoint character Lia; the worldbuilding, which explores the deadly business of human trafficking and prostitution as well as the rise of rightwing populism, using fictionalised but largely-credible examples; the cause-and-effect mechanics of the Studio’s incremental interventions, which do not always have the effect Mari desires—is all handled well, and the tension is carefully ratcheted as the tale unfolds.

Book review: Dark As My Heart, by Antti Tuomainen

30 08 2017

Antti Tuomainen is a Finnish poet and crime novelist, whose work has won the Clue Award (for best Finnish crime novel) and has been shortlisted for the Petrona and Glass Key awards. I’ve previously reviewed his novels The Healer and The Mine.


Dark As My Heart (Synkkä niin kuin sydämeni, 2013, translated by Lola Rogers) takes its title from a line in an Eino Leino poem. It’s the story of Aleksi Kivi, who lost his mother at the age of thirteen and now, twenty years later, has landed a job as caretaker at Kalmela Manor, the country retreat of the man he believes to be her murderer, millionaire Henrik Saarinen. Aleksi’s reasons for this suspicion appear nebulous, to say the least, but it gradually becomes apparent that everyone in this story—Aleksi, Saarinen, Henrik’s daughter Amanda, his chauffeur Harmala, the private investigator Ketomaa who has served, for the past twenty years, as Aleksi’s sounding-board for his theories of his mother’s death—has a secret side; nobody’s motives are pure or straightforward.

The book is atmospheric, understated, beautifully written. The language is spare and precise. Tuomainen works with a small cast of characters and a restricted setting to produce a deeply resonant tale loaded with tension and the capacity for subversion. The omnipresent autumnal imagery, ranging from fragile sunshine to bleak grey chill, acts as a counterweight to the quietly searing story. This, I firmly suspect, is one I’ll reread.