A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.
If they are giving out an award for the most unexpected crime fiction novel, then THE MAN WHO DIED would have to be an odds on favourite.
Narrated by Jaakko Kaunismaa, this is the story of a Finnish mushroom entrepreneur, based in a small town, building a successful business after being made redundant in his last career. He has a beautiful home, a thriving business, faithful employees, a loving wife who cooks elaborate meals for him, and a perfect life.
Until he finds they have mysterious competitors just around the corner, when a new mushroom export business with very odd owners in charge starts up, and immediately tries to poach his markets and his very best employees. He then discovers his loving wife is screwing the company delivery boy, just after he is told that somebody has been slowly but surely poisoning him and that he will die.
What ensues is, as the blurb puts it, part Fargo and part noir, but it forgets to mention surreal. THE MAN WHO DIED is black comedy that takes a lot of leads from the Knights Who Say "Ni!", with just enough caper at points to have readers laughing, even though it's distinctly uncomfortable to be laughing with a man who does constantly remind you that he is dying. And can't do anything about it.
Now obviously, with his wife's indiscretions with the delivery boy, and then the odd goings on with long-term Japanese customers, and the fact that she is always so keen to provide hearty, rich meals for him, Kaunismaa is pretty sure he knows the likely source of his poisoning. It's hard to decide if he's most annoyed that he's being killed, or that his business is being undermined though. Meanwhile the police are very interested in his interactions with the owners of the new mushroom factory, a stolen sword (which wasn't) and the disappearances of a couple of the aforementioned owners. Then there's the whole business with the sauna and the borrowed car, and a night at the posh hotel when a new mushroom variety is served and, well this was amazingly engaging.
Having listened to the audio version, at the very beginning, with a flat, laid back sort of delivery in use, there were more than a few moments when a "What The" moment had me diving for the rewind button. This was without a doubt, one of the most intriguing books I've encountered this year and it reminded me, yet again, that Antti Tuomainen is a writer who deserves (and now has) a much higher position on the must read list.
Review - The Black Tongue, Marko Hautala
For generations, the urban legend of Granny Hatchet has plagued the quiet residential area of Suvikylä in northern Finland. As the story goes, this immortal killer murders her victims with a hatchet, then buries the hearts in a potato field and eats them after they’ve rotted black. But not everyone is convinced it is just a story.
Somewhere between horror, folk lore and social commentary, set deep in the quiet back waters of northern Finland, THE BLACK TONGUE is a book that will stay with you for a lot of reasons.
Not being much of a fan of horror stories, it's hard to explain why this book appealed in the first place. Perhaps it is that concept of Scandinavian folk lore, to this reader's mind a kind of ramped up Grimms' Fairy Tales. Perhaps it was simply the idea that there is always an unexplained lurking evil - the boogie man or the bunyip - that's designed to keep kids in line and give them a bit of a good old fashioned scare into the bargain. So who or what was the legend of Granny Hatchet all about was extremely intriguing.
As Maisa Riipinen and Samuel Autio return to the place of their childhood, their shared pasts are revealed. Coming from the same place - both these adults have a different background - Samuel is the child of one of the refugee families who moved into the area, Maisa is from more local stock. When they were children together, the legend of Granny Hatchet was well known, delivered as a part of a ritual gathering, frightening yet creating a childish bond. Until one young girl leaves the secret circle and Samuel and Maisa are left with their own secret kept until now. Will their coming together again in the place of their childhood mean that the secret is finally revealed?
The narrative timeline of THE BLACK TONGUE switches between the childhood period - and the disappearance of the young girl - and the current day. Switching backwards and forwards abruptly at times there's a sense of unease and constant disruption as a result. That is echoed somehow in the reasons for these two returning after all these years. Maisa for the purposes of research has a clarity about her that matches the childhood observations. Samuel is back to arrange his father's funeral and his sad and reflective rummage around in his past and present seems to match the current day experience much better. It's always clear that there has been a secret past, but how that will be revealed - or if it will be - and what an increasing number of disconnected characters will have to do with it all, becomes complicated and oddly chaotic.
What THE BLACK TONGUE does deliver in spades is a wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. Dark, dank and moody, the setting for this story comes across as absolutely perfect horror territory. When staying with the main themes there's an overwhelming feeling of knowing the two main characters, of understanding their struggles and their imperfections, despite the fact that the legend of Granny Hatchet does seem to disappear from view surprisingly quickly. Where it seems to fall down, is when it wanders off into disconnected, almost surreal territory for no apparent reason.
Which could be the part that stays with you (personally I'm still mildly baffled by proceedings on a small island nobody is supposed to visit) or it could be the age-old problem of kids struggling to make sense of odd things that happen to them, or the life-long affect of guilt. Regardless of what it is that stays with you, nobody could ever accuse THE BLACK TONGUE of being expected reading.
Review - DARK AS MY HEART, Antti Tuomainen
Aleksi lost his mother on a rainy October day when he was thirteen years old. Twenty years later, he is certain that he knows who's responsible. Everything points to millionaire Henrik Saarinen. The police don't agree. Aleksi has only one option: to get close to Henrik Saarinen and find out the truth about his mother's fate on his own. But as Aleksi soon discovers, delving into Saarinen and his beautiful daughter’s family secrets is a confusing and dangerous enterprise.
The exploration of consequences is beautifully executed in Antti Tuomainen’s mesmerising DARK AS MY HEART. That he is an award winning author comes as no surprise, but of the five novels to his name in his native Finland, the third “The Healer” and this, his fourth novel, are so far the only ones translated into English. Needless to say THE HEALER is now on the TBR pile.
Aleksi Kivi was thirteen years old when his mother vanished. Now, twenty years on, he’s still haunted by her murder, and his feelings of recognition and utter belief that the millionaire owner of the company his mother worked for is responsible for that death could seem like obsession. That possibility is tempered elegantly by his quiet determination, and his willingness to observe, check and insinuate himself into Saarinen’s life in order to discover the truth.
Working as a live-in caretaker on a remote seaside property belonging to Saarinen that insinuation is planned and precisely executed, getting to know members of Saarinen’s family and staff, in particular, dangerously close to his erratic and disturbed daughter Amanda.
Told in a deceptively simple, understated manner which matches the personality and determination of the central character perfectly, there’s a clarity to the storytelling here that truly is mesmerising. The dialogue is sparse and pitched perfectly, establishing emotion, intent, feelings and motivation without having to resort to long, overblown exposition. That perfect touch is applied to the sense of place as well, creating a remote yet luxurious, underpopulated, beautiful yet sinister environment in which Kivi must try to find the truth, and hence allow himself to move on, and to live.
As close to a single sitting read as can be achieved around here, it’s not until after finishing that I realised that what we have in DARK AS MY HEART is about as perfect a combination of character, place and plot as I’ve read in a long time. Classically understated, in that particularly Scandinavian manner that many readers have come to love, the exploration of the why, and the impact of the act are as important to the author as the identification of who.
Review - THE BODYGUARD, Leena Lehtolainen
As a professional bodyguard, Hilja Ilveskero rarely loses her cool. But one day, she and a client have an argument in a Moscow fur salon, and Hilja quits on the spot. When the client turns up dead, Hilja quickly discovers that she is a suspect. In an attempt to clear her name and find the killer, she uncovers ever-deeper layers of subterfuge. Amid all the covert treachery and intrigue, Hilja finds herself falling in love with a suspicious yet irresistibly sexy man—but is her heart clouding her judgment?
Leena Lehtolainen is a Finnish author, best known for her series featuring Policewoman Maria Kallio. THE BODYGUARD is the first in a new trilogy, featuring bodyguard Hilja Ilveskero. According to her website:
"The underlying theme of the trilogy is a series of questions about identity and concealment. Who is each person really? What disguise is each person using? What does it mean to be family? What language does each person speak and understand, and what is each person’s secret language? Finnish is a good secret language—few people understand it — and Finland as a country is a safe haven for many an international criminal. Who is on whose side? Who can be trusted? What is each person’s price? Who is each person willing either to betray or to save?"
Which is something this reader should possibly have read before undertaking this book as there were so many aspects that just didn't make sense.
Starting out in Russia where Ilveskero (she from the blurb who rarely loses her cool), loses her cool immediately when her client, a wealth Finnish woman, insists on buying a Lynx fur coat and Ilveskero quits on the spot. Her objections to this particular fur coat are eventually explained, but immediately the reader is presented with a weird discordance - for somebody who rarely loses her cool - she's let it rip early on. Who's wrong here - the blurb or the character. Unfortunately a sneaking suspicion of understanding creeps in about the time that the wealthy client is shot dead in Moscow, and Ilveskero is questioned by the police. In what starts out as a "clearing her name" storyline, things rapidly progress to another client, a very odd ongoing discussion with herself in the disguise of a male character, a lot of backstory of childhood, and time in bodyguard / security school in the US, and a lurking threatening male who, of course, our heroine promptly falls for, and into the bed of.
The danger of using first person like this is that the reader has to have a connection with the central character. Even if they are selectively viewed, unreliable, odd, self-obsessed, or whatever other failings there are in the protaganist, the reader must want to spend time in that head / those thoughts. For this reader that was a very difficult proposition in THE BODYGUARD. Ilveskero isn't necessarily unreliable, and whilst she's definitely a bit odd, the offputting bit was definitely obsession, slow reveals and repetition. Reading the explanation from the website now makes some sense of some of Ilveskero's obsessions - but just reading the book - they seem like simply character traits, behaviours, with no particular reason. Obviously the use of the slow reveal to explain the Lynx obsession, the difficult childhood, is meant to raise tension - but when it's in the main character's own head - it's just came across to this reader as odd, selective memories. And the constant repetition of elements of the past, of the security school, what her tutor says / thinks, and the location of the cabin, and the bike, and and and - made it feel like you were spending way too much time in the head of somebody with an OCD problem.
None of this was helped by some really odd motivations at points - if you believe the ex-partner responsible for ordering the killing of your boss has sent an underling in pursuit of you - is it even vaguely possible that your first choice would be to fall madly in lust? Even while telling yourself that you can't trust this bloke. Okay so some women might be daft enough but should a trained bodyguard be that stupid? Careless? Whilst attaching trackers to clients and supposedly hiding your location from the same man?
The repetition, the odd motivations, the oversharing of the central character in THE BODYGUARD bogged the reading down to the point where the book felt like it was about 1/3rd longer than it needed to be and the ending seemed constantly in the distance. Even when much of the action had been wrapped up - the final twist was so corny alas it was the straw that broke this camel's back.
SILENCE - Jan Costin Wagner
A young girl disappears while cycling to volleyball practice. Her bike is found in exactly the same place that another girl was murdered, thirty-three years before. The original perpetrator was never brought to justice -- could they have struck again? The eeriness of the crime unsettles not only the police and public, but also someone who has been carrying a burden of guilt for many years...
Because SILENCE is the third of the Detective Kimmo Joentaa series, I read it third. (Rebellious you may well think, not paying attention is a much better explanation).
One of the things that I most love about these three books - ICE MOON, SILENCE and THE WINTER OF THE LIONS is the sheer beauty of everything. The place, the culture and the emotion. Sure Joentaa is in deep mourning for his wife who died too young, but there's no sense of self-pity, this is simply a beautiful example of a man struggling quietly, emotionally, but with enormous dignity to find his path, to resurrect his life.
Whilst he's doing that, aspects of real life must go on - in SILENCE it's about the past and the present - the long unsolved abduction, rape and murder of a young girl, and a copycat crime - the same spot, same method, same outcome. None of which seems to make sense given the great time gap between the two awful crimes.
One of the things that stays with you from all of these books is the gentleness, almost delicacy with which Wagner handles his characters, their places and the events that affect them. Everyone - parents, past and present police officers, even the killer are compassionately drawn. SILENCE is again a book more about why than how, and definitely about the after affects on so many participants - be they unwitting or complicit. It's a book about choices, it's a book about grief, and most of all it's a book about life. Needless to say, you've probably worked out, I loved this series - although I think, unlike me, you'd be best to read them in order to really get a feeling for Joentaa's journey in particular. These are books for those who are less interested in vengeance and action, and looking for something contemplative, compassionate and incredibly moving.
THE PRIEST OF EVIL - Matti Joensuu
There have been a strange succession of violent deaths at Helsinki tube stations. The police are baffled: nobody has seen anything and the tapes from CCTV show nothing.
Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit has experienced more than enough of the seamier side of human nature in his career, but the forces of evil have never crossed his path in such an overwhelming fashion. Who is the mysterious old woman handing out religious tracts in Latin or the priest who preaches to commuters? Can they be connected to the killings?
Eurocrime is really a tremendous imprint, providing some real little gems of books from a range of different cultural backgrounds. These books provide the crime reader with a glimpse into another culture. And make you realise that whilst some things are very different, more often it's the similarities that are surprising.
The things that THE PRIEST OF EVIL shows are the same in Finland, as they are where I come from, include the way that people can be invisible. Sometimes it's because of age, often it's age and gender combined. The other thing that seems to be guaranteed to make you invisible is doing something that discomforts others. Stand and preach, hand out pamphlets, be old, be old and female, look scruffy, or homeless or somehow "different" and you're pretty well guaranteed to slip under most people's radars. Except for other members of society also slightly on the outer. And that was the other message that came across very clearly in this book - be an outsider and you risk gravitating towards the edges, towards acceptance of any kind. Regardless of whether those edges are safe, and whether that acceptance is unconditional. Although it's not always a given and in many ways the hero's in our society (in this case the tenacious detective), are outsiders in their own right - who were drawn to a different edge.
THE PRIEST OF EVIL is quiet and contained, whilst Joensuu creates a very intimate relationship with his characters. As is the way with so many of the very good psychological style crime fiction books, there is a lot that isn't fully explained, resolved or even addressed. The reader is left to consider what it is that initiates the directions that people's lives take.
LANG - Kjell Westo
Kjell Westo is a Swedish speaking Finnish author, who has previously published poetry, short stories and three novels. LANG is his first suspense / crime novel.
The central character, Lang, is a twice divorced, well-known novelist and host of a TV discussion panel show in Finland. He's a very self-obsessed, slightly pretentious man who totally loses personal control when he meets Sarita - a very self-contained, distant woman. Lang and Sarita develop a complicated and tortuous personal relationship which is not helped by the presence of Sarita's ex-husband Marko. Lang feels physically and emotionally threatened by Marko but his passion for Sarita is so extreme he cannot tear himself away.
The novel is structured in an unusual manner, there is a narrator, Lang's best friend, who starts off telling the story after a murder has been committed, when Lang calls him late in the night. The story then steps back through the events that led up to Lang meeting Sarita, the difficulties of their relationship, their various split ups and reconciliations and Marko's involvement. The narration of events is interspersed with snippets of the narrator's involvement with Lang since childhood, and even before the crime is revealed in the book, Lang's behaviour in prison where he is obviously serving a sentence for killing somebody - but who is not clear. The victim is intentionally vague until the final clarification - it could be Sarita, it could be Marko, it could really be anybody.
This is another one of those classic Scandinavian style crime fiction books where nothing is easy, nothing is simply resolved, and there are more questions at the end than there are answers. Lang is an unpleasant character - not the sort of person that you could warm to, and even at the end, when it appears that he may just have done something grand and selfless for love, he is at the same time pulling away from the people who try to support him, back into his prickly, self-involved world. Sarita is both a victim and a perpetrator, she uses Lang just as much as he tries to control her. Even the narrator is relieved that his involvement is kept out of the courts and therefore out of the press. Another one of those books that you can't say outright that you loved or even necessarily enjoyed, but you read it, and you think about it for weeks and weeks afterwards.