Apocalyptic crime fiction from America and Finland

I’ve just finished reading Finnish crime author Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which was a gripping and quietly powerful read.

Set in an unspecified future where climate change is causing profound damage and mass migration to the safe haven of the north, the narrative follows the search of poet Tapani Lehtinen for his journalist wife Johanna. She has vanished, apparently without trace, while reporting on a series of murders by the self-styled ‘Healer’, an activist targeting those he deems responsible for the environmental catastrophe. Part crime, part love-story and part dystopian fiction, this is an unusual novel that will hopefully be followed by a sequel. I particularly enjoyed its measured pacing and stylistic precision, which in keeping with its narrator has a distinctly poetic feel – beautifully translated by Lola Rogers. It won the Clue Award for Best Finnish Crime Novel in 2011, and has just been published in paperback by Vintage. It’s also one of the submissions for the 2014 Petrona Award.  

Along with other reviewers such as Bernadette and Sarah, The Healer reminded me of Ben Winters’ excellent pre-apocalyptic crime novels, The Last Policeman and Countdown City, which are set in the States prior to an asteroid strike. The three novels explore similar, fascinating questions. What happens to social structures, but particularly to law and order when society begins to collapse? Why bother to investigate crimes or fight for justice (or write poetry) when everyone’s going to die anyway? And how do individuals respond when making moral choices in extreme circumstances? While all of this sounds pretty depressing, there is also a hopefulness to these narratives, which as Bernadette notes in her review of The Healer, makes them curiously uplifting reads.

I have to confess that I’m getting quite fond of apocalyptic crime. Here are the ones I’ve read recently (all good) and another I found while nosing around on the web. There do seem to have been quite a few published in the last couple of years, which suggests that they could be the product of a global zeitgeist. Reading The Healer while extreme weather hit UK shores and the US experienced a severe cold snap certainly added to my appreciation of the climate change theme.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (Greece / Black and White Publishing, 2013)

Quinn Fleming, DMQZ (USA / ebook, 2013 – still to read)

Hugh Howey, Wool (USA / Century, 2013)

Antti Tuomainen, The Healer (Finland / Harvill and Secker, 2013)

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman (USA / Quirk, 2012)

Ben H. Winters, Countdown City (USA / Quirk, 2013)

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24 Responses to Apocalyptic crime fiction from America and Finland

  1. NomadUK says:

    These all sound brilliant! The problem is that my Kindle makes it all too easy to just go buy them all; you are not helping me budget responsibly! I need to take about six months off just to catch up on all the reading I have stored away in this little gadget.

    And that’s not counting watching The Bridge 2, which is piling up on my hard drive! Modern technology makes it far too easy to fall behind …

    • NomadUK says:

      Okay, so at £1.50 for The Last Policeman, £1.19 for What Lot’s Wife Saw, £1.99 for DMQZ, and £2.48 for Wool, my budget isn’t hurting too much yet…

      • Mrs P. says:

        Bargains galore! Not too shabby, especially in January. Hope you enjoy them, NomadUK (although ‘enjoy’ may not be quite the right term considering the subject matter…).

        Really like The Bridge 2 – you have a treat coming up.

    • Saw your mention of the Bridge 2. I zipped through that in 3 days! incredibly great series!!

      • NomadUK says:

        I was up until 3.00 watching the first four episodes last night, until my laptop battery ran down. Gah. Coffee!

      • Mrs P. says:

        It’s addictive stuff, SmallHouseBigGarden! We just have two more episodes to air here next week. Very impressed with your speedy catch-up, NomadUK. Hope the coffee has done the trick…

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I am also discovering, to my surprise, that apocalyptic fiction has its merits: I’ve read ‘The Road’ (finally, after years of dismissing it as too depressing), What Lot’s Wife Saw, The Greenland Breach and now look forward to The Last Policeman. I need to allow some time between them, though!

    • Mrs P. says:

      I know what you mean, MarinaSofia – it’s doesn’t feel wise to read any of these back to back – too overwhelming. I’ve just checked out The Greenland Breach, and see that it’s been described as a ‘cli-fi spy novel’. I’m presuming this means ‘climate fiction’ – a new term for me. Interesting.

      • MarinaSofia says:

        Yes, it’s not apocalyptic in the science fiction style, but very realistic scenario of climate change and mining. (Well, as realistic as spy thrillers can get). Good fun!

  3. I LOVED the last policeman! What a FANTASTIC book!
    Thank you so much for these recommendations. I’ve been an apocalyptic storylover since I was a kid, and these are definitely going on my “must read” list, with DMQZ at the top!

    • Mrs P. says:

      There’s a very rich literary ‘apocalypse’ tradition, which I think has always been interesting in terms of drawing on lots of different genres. I’m not sure if the crime-inflected apocalypse novels are a new thing though, or whether there are older examples around. Must dig a little… Hope you like the ones on the list. I have DMZQ now as well. Looking forward to it.

  4. MarkC says:

    A couple of Italian apocalyptic/climate change titles for you, although the second is not exactly crime:

    Tommaso Pincio, Cinacittà (Torino: Einaudi, 2008) – French translation, but no English, as far as I know;

    Antonio Scurati, La seconda mezzanotte (Milano: Bompiani, 2012).’

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, MarkC – good to know where these kinds of works are popping up, to get a sense of their geographical distribution.

      I’ve had a quick look online and it seems that Pincio has had one work translated, but not the one you mention. I’ll keep an eye out.

  5. TracyK says:

    Thanks for the recommendations. I did like The Last Policeman, so I might like these. Such novels make one think, which is good. And I do like books that combine genres. And the focus on a crime or mystery makes the story less depressing, maybe.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Lots of readers are saying that they liked The Last Policeman, TracyK. It does seem to have gone down very well. I really liked the second in the series – Countdown City – and can’t wait for the third. It looks like it will be a wonderful trilogy.

      Like you, I like novels that draw on two or three genres: it adds a richness to the reading experience, and the narrative can be taken off in innovative directions. The crime novel does seem to lend itself well to apocalyptic tales – perhaps because crime tends to increase in times of social crisis and law enforcement faces serious challenges in that kind of situation?

  6. I must admit I thought I was done with my apocolypse reading as I stopped having much interest in sci-fi after reading almost nothing but in my early 20′s but I’m quite enjoying the theme too – I suppose that kind of setting does lend a certain focus to evennts. And it is probably the first time in history when such stories could be written as all the other apocolytic events that have been imagined are not the gradual kind that climate change offers but the sudden kind like the nuclear incidents that littered the fiction of my teenage years.

    • Mrs P. says:

      There’s a book waiting to be written on the different phases apocalyptic fiction has gone through and the particular types of threat (nuclear / aliens / plague / zombies / climate change) that predominate at different moments. There may well be a few out there already, but if not it would be fascinating area to research…

  7. Sarah says:

    Thanks to the links to my blog, Mrs P. I’ve a third book to add to the apocalyptic theme. Louise Welsh’s ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ which I’ve just read. Equally good and set closer to home in London.

  8. Blighty says:

    In the abstract I would have said end of the world novels wouldn’t be my thing but I really enjoyed The Last Policeman and am keen to read the next one in the series; The Healer has been on my Pinterest To Read list for ages (unfortunately my local library does not seem to stock such exotic fare!!) Very interested to see Nomad’s comments above about prices of some of these books on KIndle, very tempting at those prices, partic as it costs 50p to reserve a book at the library…
    Am absolutely loving Bridge 2, it’s stupdendous, I suspect EVERYBODY and I enjoy Saga’s conversations with Martin so much. Bxx

    • Mrs P. says:

      They wouldn’t be high on the ‘uplifting novels I must read’ list, but they do seem to quietly suck readers in, and not in a bad way either. And yes, some quite tasty deals there.

      I watched Saturday’s episodes of The Bridge with my spouse, and we were admiring how all of the myriad plot-lines were woven together with slightly different emphases each time. Quite a feat. I do get a bit lost at times, but it’s not denting my enjoyment one bit (and I reckon the plot is holding together a bit better than series 1 as well). Saga and Martin: they should put all of the ‘lift conversations’ together as one continuous clip. It would be stupendous.

  9. Pingback: review roundup and a new version of Macbeth | Scandinavian Crime Fiction

  10. Thank you so much for the list! A treasure trove!
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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