The Snow Woman by Leena Lehtolainen, translated by Owen Witesman
Amazon Crossing, December 2014
Originally published as Luminainen, 1996
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher
I’m new to this series, which was recently translated nearly 20 years after it was published. Maria Kallio is a detective in Espoo, outside Helsinki, and her career background is both as a lawyer and a policewoman.
The case involves the mysterious death of Elina Rosberg, a feminist psychologist who is found frozen near the grounds of her home and workplace, the Rosberga Institute, where she conducts therapy and runs workshops for women only. The novel follows the stories of the women who are staying there over the holidays, including a woman escaping a religious sect and wanting custody of her nine children. Kallio also investigates other crimes along the way (an assault, an arson, etc), and the main police department storyline involves the release of a dangerous prisoner who is searching for Maria and her partner Pihlo.
Overall the book was only a fine read form me, for a number of reasons. I think the feminist ass-kicking heroine was a bit more novel in 1996 than she is today. And the two main storylines didn’t feel connected enough for me. The characters Kallio encountered in her investigation had the makings of good plotlines (the woman escaping the religious sect, an astropsychologist whose job is just as odd as it sounds), but overall the novel didn’t work for me.
Light in a Dark House by Jan Costin Wagner, translated by Anthea Bell
Harvill Secker, Sept. 2013
Originally published as Das Licht in einem dunklen Haus, 2011
Kimmo Joentaa book 4
FTC Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Light in a Dark House is a very moody crime novel set in Finland that is in part a police procedural, but it doesn’t really adhere to that genre. After a very effective and non-graphic prologue (bravo!), the book opens with a rather long setpiece at Kimmo Joentaa’s boss’s fiftieth birthday party, a party that the grieving widower Joentaa attends with his girlfriend Larissa, who leaves him the day after the party. Not only does he miss his dead wife, he misses the enigmatic Larissa throughout the book. Costin Wagner focuses on the characters a great deal and their grief, and grief is also key to the crimes they investigate in this book.
The plot alternates between the present day starting with the murder of a comatose woman in a hospital and a horrid crime that happened during the summer of 1985 which is captured in enigmatic diary entries that become clearer as the book progresses. It’s a story about violence against women and the effects of the crime on those who didn’t try to stop the crime. The mood is quite sad.
Joentaa is a compelling character not only for his personal life but for his intuitive investigatory style. The experience of reading the book is very much like being in Joentaa’s head as impressions of the investigation wash over him. It’s hard to capture a mind at work, but Costin Wagner does it very well. It’s also a book that has stayed with me: it’s not a book with a gripping plot that I immediately forget, but the events and the mood have lingered.
Finally, this is the first book I’ve read that’s set in Finland, and the Finnish touches that stood out to me, besides the names, dealt with food: tundraberry ice cream and brightly colored muesli jumped out at me. Sometimes the oddest flourishes in a book stick with me.
I very much look forward to catching up with this series.
Nights of Awe by Harri Nykänen, translated by Kristian London
Originally published as Ariel in Finland, 2004
Bitter Lemon Press
Publication date: April 2012
Nights of Awe introduces Detective Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crimes Unit in the Helsinki police department. After a quick background chapter introducing the main character and his Jewish heritage (he hasn’t really practiced in years), we are immediately in the investigation of multiple murders. It’s a bit disorienting, in part because Finnish names aren’t familiar to me, and in part because there’s a quite high body count in the first third of the book.
While Ari is a police inspector, this isn’t a typical police procedural: it’s also a conspiracy thriller, involving the peeling away of the many layers of the conspiracy. I don’t typically read conspiracy thrillers, so I don’t have any comparisons to draw. It’s not a case that simply unravels: there are crosses and double-crosses and hidden motives galore.
The protagonist Kafka is interesting. Nykänen spends more time talking about his family members and how his family’s life affected him than he spends talking about his Jewish background, even though the title of the novel refers to the days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Kafka is interesting in that he doesn’t seem too grizzled, cynical, or burnt out, as so many police inspectors can be. One negative note about Kafka is that his objectification of women gets to be a bit much during the story.
Finally, the book has an interesting take on the relationship between Finland and Israelis and Palestinians, something I hadn’t really pondered before. It’s a messy history, and I learned something I didn’t know.
If you’re interested in a police procedural with a conspiracy story, some interesting political history thrown in, and some dark twists you’ll like this book.
Other reviews appear in Crime Segments and Crime Scraps.