Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

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This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

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Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

fossum

Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

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Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

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First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

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This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

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Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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#18 Jan Costin Wagner / The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner, The Winter of the Lions, translated from German by Anthea Bell (London: Harvill Secker, 2011 [2009]). 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.

For other Mrs P. posts on the Joentaa series see Ice Moon and Silence.

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.

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A bit of a treat: Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Belfast for a few days, and will pop my head round the door of the ‘States of Crime’ conference being held at Queen’s on Friday and Saturday. As its title suggests, the conference will be looking at representations of the state in crime fiction, and how it is shown negotiating issues such as criminality, policing, justice and civil rights. 

I’ve had a peek at the programme, and it’s stuffed with talks on international crime (Italian, French, German, Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, African, Spanish, British, Irish, American). Heaven! 

The icing on the cake is a round table with David Peace and Eoin McNamee. Peace is a bit of a literary god in my eyes: I think his Red Riding Quartet is one of the best things ever written – irrespective of genre – and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in discussion at the No Alibis Bookstore on Friday evening. 

#9 Jan Costin Wagner / Silence

Jan Costin Wagner, Silence, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Vintage 2011 [2007]). The second novel in the Kimmo Joentaa series. An absorbing police procedural and a sensitive portrayal of grief  5 stars

 

Opening sentence: The time came when they got into the little red car and drove away.

I wrote a short but enthusiastic post on Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon back in March. While German by nationality (and writing in German), Costin Wagner is an honorary Finn by marriage, and appears to have acquired the stylistic DNA of nordic crime in the process. His police detective Kimmo Joentaa convincingly goes about his business in and around the Finnish city of Turku, and little within the narrative hints at the fact that its author was actually born and brought up in Frankfurt, nearly 1500 kilometers to the south-west.

Silence is the second in the Kimmo Joentaa series. The first, Ice Moon, depicted the harrowing weeks following the death of Kimmo’s young wife Sanna, and his desperate attempts to manage his grief by throwing himself into police-work. Silence is set a year or so later, and continues the sensitive exploration of Kimmo’s grief, as well as other kinds of grief felt by those around him, such as the parents of those who have disappeared or been murdered, or the former work colleague trying to communicate with his gravely troubled child.

When I’ve read an outstanding first novel, I’m often a bit wary of reading the second in the series, in case it doesn’t live up to the high standards of its predecessor. But Silence does a fantastic job of picking up the threads of Ice Moon, while developing the characterisation of the investigative team and providing the reader with an aborbing new crime narrative. In particular, the developing relationship between Joentaa and his recently retired and rather curmudgeonly boss, Ketola, is very nicely handled.

The novel’s investigation centres on the sudden disappearance of a teenager on her way to volleyball practice. The girl’s bicycle is found in exactly the same spot where another girl was attacked and murdered thirty-three years earlier, raising the possibility of a belated copy-cat killing. The cold case, in particular, has haunted Ketola, who was involved in the original investigation at the beginning of his career, and who now employs some rather unorthodox methods in his attempts to uncover the truth. In common with Ice Moon, the narrative also shows events from the perspective of the perpetrator, allowing readers to gain insights into the circumstances of the crime that are denied even Joentaa and Ketola. By employing this dual narrative structure, the novel succeeds in both satisfying the reader and in providing a thoughtful, nuanced, and rather disturbing conclusion to the case.

The third novel in the series, The Winter of the Lions, has just been published in translation by Vintage.

Mrs. Peabody awards Silence a classy 5 stars.

Germany meets Finland: Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon

Things have (ahem) been somewhat biased towards Danish and Scandinavian crime fiction in the last few posts. So I’m trying to broaden my horizons by means of a German crime novel by Jan Costin Wagner. But wait…his wife’s Finnish and the book’s set in Finland? So much for weaning myself off Nordic crime.

First line: Kimmo Joentaa was alone with her when she went to sleep.

I hadn’t heard of Costin Wagner before, but really liked Ice Moon (Eismond), his second novel, which features the young Finnish policeman Kimmo Joentaa. The novel opens with the death of Joentaa’s wife after a long illness, and in many ways is a study of grief that happens to be woven into a murder investigation. Each of the victims has been smothered in their sleep, and Joentaa becomes fascinated by these ‘eerily tranquil’ killings, while trying to absorb the loss of his own wife.

The novel’s nicely written, with a characteristic Nordic feel, and the both the investigator and the murderer’s story are explored with sensitivity. The Independent on Sunday described the book as ‘intriguing and touching’, which is spot on. A lovely little read.

Ice Moon is published in translation by Vintage Books (2006), and you can read the first few chapters online here.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction Smorgasbord

Thanks to a tip-off from cavershamragu, I’ve spent the evening wallowing happy as a hippo in mud over at the ScandinavianBooks website.

Rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun and Selga Lagerlof are a whole host of Scandinavian crime writers. Indeed, five of the six authors featured under the heading of ‘contemporary and rising authors’ turn out to be crime writers too, illustrating the extent of the Scandi crime boom (as well as the present publishing clout of writers such as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum). 

You can browse Scandinavian crime on the site by writer or by nationality (for the latter, hover over the ‘crime’ tab at the top of the homepage). As one would expect, the Swedes are well represented (Sjowall / Wahloo, Mankell, Larsson and Nesser to name just a few), but so are the Norwegians (Dahl, Egeland, Holt, Nesbo, Fossum), the Danes (Davidsen and Peter Hoeg of Miss Smilla fame) and those amazing Icelanders (Indridason, Sigurdardottir). There are also a couple of Finnish authors, Sipila and Joensuu, whom I look forward to checking out. Typically, each author entry features a biography, a review/overview of key works and links to other sites, such as the affiliated Nordic Bookblog. There’s some information on film and TV adaptations too. 

It’s a veritable treasure trove if you’re new to Scandinavian crime and want to find out what all the fuss is about. Or, perhaps like me, you might have read many of the classics, and are keen to lay your hands on some lesser-known works. Either way, this site is a highly useful resource. Tack så mycket! 

Oh, and if you’re into Viking sagas, it’s also definitely the place for you. Apologies for the naffness that follows; unable to resist.