A policeman’s crimes

Issue 4/1985 | Archives online, Authors

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. Photo: Jouni Harala

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. Photo: Jouni Harala 2010

The Finnish section of the major Nordic Crime Novel Competition in 1976 was won by a newcomer, Matti Yrjänä Joensuu, with his Väkivallan virkamies (‘Civil servant in violence’). A realistic crime and police novel in the style of the Swedish writers Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the book represented something completely new in Finland. In the previous competition, held in 1939 as Europe hovered on the brink of war, the winner of the Finnish section was Mika Waltari’s Kuka murhasi Rouva Skrofin (‘Who killed Mrs Skrof?’); the novel is now regarded as one of the classics of Nordic detective fiction. But Waltari was, of course, a literary polymath; his Sinuhe, egyptiläinen (1945; English translation The Egyptian) is among the internationally best-known Finnish novels.

The detective novel and thriller tradition in Finland is both short and slight, and apart from Waltari’s book and its two sequels, many of its representatives – even those that have been most widely acclaimed and read at the time – are of little worth by any objective standards. Joensuu, therefore, has no living tradition to follow, and in interviews he has said that at the start of his career he was not familiar with the two Swedish writers to whom his work is most readily likened, Sjöwall and Wahlöö. This is not difficult to believe; in terms of both politics and social criticism Joensuu’s first novel, in particular, is much tamer than the Swedish writers’ – what all three writers have in common is the gravity with which they approach crime and the individuals who engage in it, and their realistic description of the work of the police.

Matti Yrjänä Joensuu (born 1948) is himself a policeman by profession, and he has also worked for some time as the crime editor of a sensational Finnish evening paper. In the foreword to Väkivallan virkamies he remembers how during his time as a journalist his stomach ulcers became more acute, and how he returned to his job in the police force sadder but perhaps a little wiser.

A policeman he is still, no longer in the violent crimes department, but on regular duties. The seven novels that have succeeded his first have brought him a great deal of acclaim, and latterly a large readership; he is the only crime writer to have received a government literature prize, and he was on the shortlist for the new Finlandia Prize, Finland’s equivalent of the Booker, in 1985. His international career is just beginning: two of his novels have been exceptionally well received in Sweden – praise indeed from a country with a strong tradition in the genre. And his novel Harjunpää ja poliisin poika (‘Harjunpää and the policeman’s son’) has been published in Danish, and it is at present being translated into Estonian and English.

There is a passage in Joensuu’s first book that gives a strong clue as to the direction that his subsequent literature was to take: ‘Without any mental resistance he recognised the fact that Konttinen’s murder was no more than another run-of-the-mill Finnish criminal homicide. All those involved, the victim, the witnesses, the beneficiaries and without doubt the criminals themselves, belonged to the less privileged classes of society. They were people who struggled to get by on tiny pensions or minute wages, old men whose brains were pickled by alcohol, sick or a bit simple, petty criminals or lads who were fiddling the dole. These are the clients of violence, poor creatures, who having killed a man are astonished – Wha. . . how. . . how could I have done that?’

Joensuu’s subsequent novels, by and large, deepen that vivid vision in a way that is clearly charted by the books’ subtitles. He describes his first novel as ‘a documentary novel about a Helsinki murder and its investigator, and of an individual at the point of death.’ From the fourth book the subtitles have run as follows: ‘A novel about a crime, its perpetrators and investigation’; ‘A novel about a crime, a man and a woman’; ‘A novel about a crime and about the beams in our eyes’; ‘A novel about two crimes and the investigation of one of them, about all those who cannot perceive their image in the face of the policeman’; and the latest, in 1985, ‘A novel about crime and other things.’

After the success of his first novel, Joensuu solved the problem of how to follow it up by producing a completely different kind of book. Harjunpää does not appear in his Passu ja paavin panttivangit (‘Piggy and the pope’s hostages’, 1977). The book is the story of an old couple who are held hostage by a young drug addict. The exploration of the old people’s relationship is central to the book, but Joensuu is not yet able to bring the character of the criminal to life. He does not even begin to build him into a real character; the young interloper remains a sketchy figure whose function is to personify unforeseen menace. The book is one of Joensuu’s most carefully structured, and its overwhelmingly suggestive atmosphere is one of its strongest points.

In his third book Joensuu returned to his original protagonist, Police Constable Harjunpää, and since then he has remained faithful to him. From this novel onwards, Joensuu’s concern has been all those involved in crime, all of whom he describes as victims. At the same time he opens up wider social perspectives and emphasises that human responsibility is world-wide; it is the individual’s d ty to care. The tension and interest of the central character of Harjunpää is derived to a great extent from his desire to do something about what he sees in the world and on the beat, to put right the wrongs – however powerless he knows he is, in reality, to do this. This vision links Joensuu ethically more closely with the American detective story tradition represented by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald than with the Anglo-Saxon police story typified by the works of Ed McBain.

In his latest books Joensuu devotes himself increasingly to describing the side of Helsinki that most people do not see, the inhabitants most people do not meet: the sick and the lonely, those who have been cast aside. His novels are about crime, tragedy, whose characters are equal but in which – unlike in newspaper reports – no one can remain merely an onlooker, an impartial witness. The reader, too, participates in the drama in a way that can sometimes be oppressive.

In Harjunpää ja poliisin poika (1983) – the novel that opened up Joensuu’s Swedish readership – the author describes young people who use gratuitous violence in an exceptionally cruel way, meaninglessly. An interesting statement of the central tenet of Joensuu’s philosophy is to be found at the end of the book in a scene that takes place in one of the dozen tunnels quarried beneath Helsinki at the time of the First World War. The tunnel is 16-year-old Leo’s world: ‘I’ve always been something like this. I think I’ve always lived in this kind of cave. And somehow I know that wherever I go I’ll still be here.’

Harjunpää ja heimolaiset (‘Harjunpää and the tribesmen’, 1984) deals with the results of entrenched racial prejudice in the investigation of a revenge killing in which a former policeman is accidentally murdered. The police represent society, and their use of violence is an extreme example of prejudice and the desire to subjugate at all costs. Joensuu examines how a police attitude that is coldly pro­ cedural and lacking in human sympathy proceeds – and the new tragedy that can result.

At the end of the novel Harjunpää faces a dead end, and despairs of his relationship with his work and with the police community. It is only logical, therefore, that in Joensuu’s next novel, Harjunpää ja rakkauden lait (‘Harjunpää and the laws of love’, 1985), he takes as his subject representatives of that community: he describes the personal and work lives of two of Harjunpää’s colleagues. Joensuu is at his best when he examines personal relationships; as well as the two police­ men, he draws convincing and subtle pictures of the criminal at the centre of the plot, a man who cheats women of money by preying on their love, and of his victims. The central themes are, nonetheless, as always for Joensuu, people’s cries for help and the lack of a universal language that allows them to go unheard.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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