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.

MyFirstMurder

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.

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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.

BelowTheSurface

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.

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.