Jan Costin Wagner, The Winter of the Lions, translated from German by Anthea Bell (London: Harvill Secker, 2011 ). The third novel in the beguiling Kimmo Joentaa series. 4 stars
Opening sentence: Kimmo Joentaa had been planning to spend the last hours of Christmas Eve on his own, but it didn’t turn out like that.
I was given a copy of The Winter of the Lions by my lovely brother for Christmas (following a sisterly nudge in the right direction) and it proved to be the perfect festive read, as the novel’s action begins on 24th December and ends on New Year’s Eve. The evocative cover, with its snowy Finnish birches, also made the novel an attractive winter gift.
Regular readers to this blog will know that I’m a firm fan of of the Kimmo Joentaa series, which, intriguingly, is set in Finland but is authored by a German whose wife is Finnish. The novels are suffused with nordic melancholia, and are in large measure a study of grief, as the first novel, Ice Moon, opens with the death of Detective Joentaa’s young wife. Thus, while each book contains a discrete police investigation, collectively they trace the arc of Joentaa’s grief and the slow process by which he comes to terms with his loss. The Winter of the Lions, set around three years later, sees him embarking on a fragile and rather unconventional new relationship with a women he meets through his duties as a policeman.
One of the big strengths of the series is its focus on the characters within the police team, in a way that’s reminiscent of Scandinavian writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Mankell. Joentaa isn’t the only team member with problems, and there are some very human depictions of individuals trying to juggle the demands of their professional lives with the stresses and strains of life beyond the office. In this novel, however, the team also has to deal with the collective trauma of one of their own being murdered. Forensic pathologist Patrik Laukkanen is found dead on a snowy cross-country ski trail in the forest, the victim of a frenzied knife attack. Soon afterwards, another man is found stabbed, and when the link between the two victims is established it proves to be a strange one: both were guests on the popular Hamalainen talk show. As the front cover tantalisingly points out, ‘careless talk costs lives’…
As in previous Joentaa novels, sections of the narrative are written from the murderer’s point of view, and we gradually build up a picture of their character and the circumstances that have led them to commit their crimes. The murderer in The Winter of the Lions is portrayed with sensitivity and a degree of sympathy, although the consequences of his/her crimes for the families of the victims are also carefully spelled out. Here, again, trauma and grief are key themes, and as in Ice Moon, there are some intriguing similarities between the murderer and the investigator whose job it is to track him/her down.
I enjoyed The Winter of the Lions almost as much as the previous two Joentaa novels (although I missed the presence of Ketola, Joentaa’s former boss), and will certainly be back for more. At the end of this third book, I realise that the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.
The first few chapters are available via the Random House website.
Incidentally, Silence was made into a German film in 2010 (entitled Das letzte Schweigen [the final silence]. You can see the trailer here, which looks great and makes wonderful use of the Finnish *summer* landscape (for a change). It’s in German, but don’t let that put you off!
Mrs Peabody awards The Winter of the Lions a snow and vodka fuelled 4 stars.