Book review: Before I Go, by Leena Lehtolainen

1 05 2017

Leena Lehtolainen is an award-winning Finnish crime novelist, best known for her long-running series of police procedurals featuring Maria Kallio. This series now stands at fourteen volumes, the first seven of which have thus far been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed the third book in the Maria Kallio series, Copper Heart, here.

BeforeIGo

Before I Go (Ennen lähtöä, 2000, translated by Owen F Witesman) is the seventh book in the Maria Kallio series, in which Maria’s career has advanced to see her hold the post of Unit Commander in the Violent Crimes Unit of Espoo’s police force.  The book opens with the discovery of a grievously bashed cyclist, interior designer and Greens councillor, on a parkland path in the southern Finnish city. The case soon becomes a homicide investigation, but with no direct witnesses to the attack and a string of contradictory statements regarding a motorcyclist seen to have fled the area soon after, Maria and her team must rely on forensic evidence and on a hazy and frustratingly-broad range of possible motives. Was the openly-gay councillor targeted for his sexuality, for his political activity, or for some other reason? And is the assault simply a bashing that got out of hand, or something more serious and premeditated?

Lehtolainen’s novels fit fairly comfortably into the Scandinavian crime-and-social-commentary mould; they’re solid and enjoyable, though hardly exceptional, examples of this style. (In saying this, though, I’m mindful that this book, though only now available in English translation, was written almost two decades ago, and thus comparison with the latest work by, say, Kati Hiekkapelto or Antti Tuomainen is a case of apples vs. oranges.) This time lag perhaps explains why the book somewhat labours (in my opinion) its ‘acceptance’ credentials: while same-sex marriage is now legal in Finland, the country didn’t even have a legally-recognised ‘recognised partnership’ category until 2002. (Of course, I write this from the perspective of living in a country that still refuses to legalise marriage equality, but that’s a matter somewhat beyond the scope of this review …) But the book’s portrayal of the range of attitudes likely to prevail within an intrinsically conservative institution, such as the police, appears plausible. And I’m not sure whether to be heartened or dispirited by the story’s otherwise still-contemporary feel. The identified problems of seventeen years ago still seem quite relevant today.

The plot, as I suspect is standard in Lehtolainen’s novels, is reasonably intricate, and the book’s two-page Dramatis Personae is a useful feature for readers, like myself, who may occasionally find themselves lost among a profusion of sometimes-intractable Finnish names.

Though the story is certainly not without action, it doesn’t seek to ramp up the tension through unnecessarily-contrived scenarios; if the case does not exactly unfold as a by-the-book investigation, there are at least clues offered for Maria’s deviations from Standard Operating Procedure. And there’s enough warmth and weight in the characterisation of the various officers (and witnesses, and suspects, and family members) to retain the reader’s interest. This seems to be a dependable series that, hopefully, will continue to see further English translation.

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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.





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.





Book review: The Mine, by Antti Tuomainen

15 11 2016

Antti Tuomainen is a Finnish crime fiction writer and journalist who has previously worked in advertising. I’ve reviewed an earlier book of Tuomainen’s, The Healer here.

themine

In The Mine (Kaivos, 2015, translated by David Hackston), reporter Janne Vuori receives an anonymous tipoff about problems at the Suomalahti mine in northern Finland. His editor agrees it’s a story worth investigating, but when Janne visits the mine, hoping to get some answers, he is rebuffed by the mine’s security staff. The townspeople have nothing negative to say about the mine, and the official documentation surrounding the venture points to its state-of-the-art environmental credentials. It’s a success story, surely? As it transpires, though, this is rather difficult to substantiate: Janne would like to get some commentary from the mine’s directors, but two of them refuse to comment … and the other two are dead.

Emil is a hired killer who is very good at what he does … and his path is about to cross Janne’s.

The Mine further cements Tuomainen’s reputation as a creator of gritty, up-to-the-minute fiction, with every word precisely placed. The book reads (in tone, more than in subject matter or storyline) like a crazy blend of Richard Morgan’s Market Forces and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: the prose is wonderful, the violence spare and matter-of-fact. Tuomainen is able to worm his way so thoroughly into the heads of his protagonists that they develop a sense of life quite independent of the page. It’s apparent, too, that the book has been well-researched: the ore extraction technique mentioned, bioleaching, has indeed been trialled in Finnish mining in recent years, and has proven problematic in at least one mine (though the problems presented in The Mine do not appear to match, exactly, those that have occurred in real life, and naturally the book’s body count is fictional).

The Mine has no characters in common with The Healer: Tuomainen does not appear, yet, to have locked himself in a series, and I suspect the standalone format of each book allows him to play more freely with the characters. There is, nonetheless, a commonality of theme, in the sense that both The Mine and The Healer are grounded in environmental awareness. This isn’t, I hasten to add, anything preachy: it’s more that Tuomainen has elected to explore the scope offered by environmental degradation as a basis for crime fiction, and this does set these books apart, to some degree, from the conventional murder-mystery narrative. (I’ve mentioned previously that Tuomainen’s recourse to environmental subject matter is broadly analogous to Kati Hiekkapelto’s exploration of social justice and immigration issues in her crime fiction: these are, I think, two of the most exciting voices in Finnish crime today.)

The characterisation, and the gradually-revealed backstory, is a definite strength of the book. So too are the occasional glimpses of black humour: for example, hitman Emil describes his vocation as ‘human resources’. I’m not sure that I completely buy into the evolution of the story on an interpersonal level, but it is surprising and it is memorable and it is, ultimately, touching.

Oh, and Janne Vuori is certainly not Philip Marlowe; but if there’s a better channeling of Chandler, anywhere, than the understated scene in which The Mine‘s sequence of crimes is explicated, I haven’t read it yet.





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.





Book review: The Hummingbird, by Kati Hiekkapelto

14 10 2016

Kati Hiekkapelto is a Finnish writer, punk vocalist, and performance artist who has worked as a special-needs teacher for immigrant children. Her crime fiction has been nominated for the Glass Key and Petrona awards. She’s written three novels to date: The Hummingbird (Kolibri, 2013, translated by David Hackston) is her debut.

thehummingbird

Detective-Inspector Fekete Anna (known to her colleagues as Anna Fekete) is a Hungarian-Yugoslav immigrant newly stationed in the city in Finland’s north where she spent her teenage years. Her hopes for a gentle introduction to her new job within the Violent Crimes Unit are dashed on her first day by two deeply-disturbing cases, which each cut to the core of Anna’s identity: one, a claim of impending honour violence against an immigrant schoolgirl, and two, the brutal shotgun slaying of a jogger in the parkland where Anna herself jogs. It’s not helped, too, that her assigned partner, Esko Niemi (who takes an almost instant dislike to Anna), is a middle-aged detective whose racist tendencies are scarcely more well-concealed than his drinking problem. But Anna finds allies within the Violent Crimes Unit as well, chiefly Sari Jokikokko-Pennanen, the other female officer on the team. Hiekkapelto gets under the skin of each of these characters (and several others besides), presenting them as fully-realised, three-dimensional, complex individuals whose lives intrude on their duties and vice versa. I may well be mistaken in attributing the plain-spoken, cogent nonsentimentality of the prose to some peculiarly Finnish characteristic, but it’s a style I’ve noticed also in the work of Johanna Sinisalo (Birdbrain) and Tove Jansson (her adult fiction, of course, but also the last two Moomin books).

The schoolgirl’s honour-violence claim is withdrawn (a retraction which Anna refuses to accept at face value, despite being instructed by her supervisor Virkkunen to drop the case). And there are very few tangible clues at the site of the jogger’s slaying, since a downpour during the night of the murder has washed away almost everything of potential forensic value. A second, near-identical homicide, forty kilometres from the site of the first, reveals new evidence, but nothing ties the two crimes together except for the plastic necklace of an Aztec god which is found in the pocket of each victim. Every trail of evidence which the officers of the VCU follow leads not to a definitive indication of any suspect, but to further confusion and contradiction.

I haven’t made a study of Scandinavian crime-fiction debuts, but Hiekkapelto’s is impressive, every bit as assured and immersive as those of Mari Jungstedt (Unseen) and Åsa Larsson (The Savage Altar). (As it happens, Åsa Larsson is name-checked in The Hummingbird, as one of three authors—Chandler and (I presume Håkan) Nesser are the others—whose books on a suspect’s shelf are indicative, in Anna’s opinion, of ‘good taste in crime fiction’.) There’s an enviable sense of grit to Anna’s backstory, to the portrayal of a troubled community in Finland’s hinterlands, to the multilayered depiction of the outsider’s lot within a country that is at times generous, at times mistrustful and insular. And Anna herself is a marvellous creation, an unorthodox left-of-centre detective who drinks and smokes more than she wishes to, runs less often than she feels she should, and maintains an awkward interaction with both the Finland which adopted her as a child and the Serbia to which her mother has again retreated. The writing, too, is very well executed: the book is a joy to read, and the sense of mystery holds to the last few pages. I felt that the resolution was wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor criticism given the absolute surefootedness in every preceding chapter.

Oh, and (though I know I shouldn’t be fixated on such things) the book even has a low-key Moomin reference. What’s not to like?





Book review(s): two Finnish crime novels

28 09 2016

Another doubled-up Scandicrime book review.

If there’s a connection here, it’s that both writers started young—they were both authors of YA novels before they’d finished their teens. (Oh, and there’s one more connection, to which I’m probably particularly attuned: as with the first pair of Swedish murder mysteries I reviewed, each of these books makes passing reference to the Moomins.)

Leena Lehtolainen is a Glass Key-nominated Finnish crime novelist whose first book, begun at the age of ten, was released when she was just twelve. She’s best known for her ‘Maria Kallio’ series of mystery novels, now numbering around a dozen titles, of which the first five have been translated into English. It’s tempting to see her protagonist Kallio as a somewhat autobiographical character—like Lehtolainen, her parents are teachers, her hometown lies close to one of the regional cities of central eastern Finland, several hundred km north of Helsinki, and (for the first few books, at least) author and character appear to match in age.

copperheart

In Copper Heart (Kuparisydän, 1994, translated by Owen F Witesman), Maria Kallio has returned temporarily to her hometown Arpikylä, a small (fictional) mining town in northern Karelia, on a six-month placement as the town’s sheriff while the incumbent is on leave. Also absent from the scene is Maria’s boyfriend Antii, a mathematician completing his PhD in Chicago. Kallio is expecting that the half-year back in Arpikylä will be much less eventful than her experience within the Helsinki police force, and for the first two months of the sinecure this expectation holds true, until at the opening night for a new ‘museum of mining’ (which, it is hoped, will turn around the town’s flagging economic fortunes following the closing of its exhausted copper mines) one of Maria’s acquaintances, Meritta Flöjt, a local politician, established artist, and the sister of Maria’s erstwhile punk-bandmate Jaska Korhonen, falls to her death from the top of the mining museum’s tower. Initial indications are that the fall may well have been accidental—Meritta had been drinking earlier in the evening, and was known as something of a risk-taker—but as the investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that there are signs of foul play. Moreover, since it’s a close-knit community, there’s every likelihood that the killer is someone Kallio knows well: her former teenage crush ‘Johnny’ Miettinen, Meritta’s fellow politician and artist Matti Virtanen, acclaimed local athlete Kaisa Miettinen (Johnny’s cousin), or any of a half-dozen other suspects.

Copper Heart takes its time getting started: there’s a long opening sequence in which Lehtolainen lays out the setting and introduces us to the many characters involved. (I have to confess that I found this sequence sometimes bewilderingly crowded: it’s difficult to keep straight all of the characters, possibly because the names are somewhat confusing to unaccustomed English-speaking readers. Fortunately, there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book, to which I found myself referring on more than one occasion.) It’s a busy novel, and sometimes feels meandering. Kallio’s somewhat confessional first-person voice is intrusive in places: depending on your preferences along the ‘tell vs. show’ continuum, the prose can pose a barrier to immersion. Nonetheless, I found myself warming to the story, as much for the detail of small-town character interplay as for the process of investigation. It helps that Kallio is a rather quirky, innately likeable protagonist. And despite its age—the book is, after all, over two decades old—it has a definitely contemporary feel, with references to Russian mafiosi, skirmishes between Finnish skinheads and Somalian refugees, and the economic difficulties experienced by districts in which primary industry has suffered a downturn. (Plus it’s hard—for me, at least—not to like any book which laments, in passing, the creeping saccharinisation that has befallen Tove Jansson’s iconic Moomin legacy. Inspector Twiggs would, I think, approve.)

Compared to Lehtolainen, the Tampere-based author, critic and translator Salla Simukka started late: her first book was not written until she was eighteen, leading to publication at age twenty-one. She has written a large number of YA novels, and has won the Topelius Prize and the Finland Prize for her writing.

asredasblood

As Red As Blood (Punainen kuin veri, 2013, again translated by Owen F Witesman) is the first volume in the ‘Snow White’ (or ‘Lumikki Andersson’) YA thriller trilogy. Lumikki, a student at an art-focussed senior high school in Tampere, is resourceful, smart, and quick-witted, with her strong drive for self-preservation—something acquired through bitter childhood experience, the roots of which we’re slow to learn—at odds, at times, with her fearless risk-taking. When she finds a large quantity of blood-soaked banknotes hanging up to dry in the school darkroom, she’s tempted to just not get involved … until her curiosity gets the better of her judgment, and she’s embroiled.

Simukka’s writing is vivid, sometimes playful, and Lumikki (who bears the name usually accorded, in Finnish translations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, to ‘Snow White’) is a fascinating character, individualistic and thoughtfully intuitive. Her observations of the people around her are highly insightful, her heightened self-awareness supplies an unusual view of her surroundings, and her techniques for staying out of, or getting out of, trouble seem genuinely effective … providing one has the chutzpah to pull them off. But Limukki knows less about what she’s walking into than does the reader, and she puts herself in deadly danger.

As Red As Blood isn’t really a murder mystery: it opens with a death, that of Natalia Smirnova, who for a short time was in possession of the now-bloodstained banknotes, but we don’t have to wait long to learn who’s responsible for Natalia’s death. It’s to Simukka’s credit that she’s able to get into the minds of Lumikki’s various acquaintances and antagonists as effectively and revealingly as she is into the mindset of Lumikki herself. And, though the book is clearly intended for a young adult readership, it makes its case without any hint of condescension or compromise: it’s comfortable in its own skin, much as is Lumikki herself. All up, the book is both propulsive and thoughtful, and I’ll confess more than a passing interest in what happens next, in As White As Snow.