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: 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.


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.

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.


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.


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.