Food for thought

Issue 1/2006 | Archives online, Articles, Authors, Non-fiction

Are thrillers the junk food of literature – or is there any haute cuisine in the genre of crime? And who cares anyway, if the books make you tum the page? Pia Ingström takes a look at some Finnish whodunits

Finnish crime fiction has kept itself largely free of the illusions of grandeur which have made the same genre in neighbouring Sweden begin to seem ever more pretentious and ridiculous. In the recent past, Sweden has exported blockbusters by Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund and Åke Edwardson to the international crime Fiction market, followed by a great flood of successors totally lacking in originality but presented as important literary contributions to some vaguely defined ‘contemporary debate’.

In Finland, detective stories and thrillers are sensibly treated simply as detective stories and thrillers crafted according to a recognisable formula, avoiding the sort of monstrosities characteristic of Sweden which mix scenes of brutal violence clearly intended as entertainment with claims to social relevance. Finnish crime novels tend to be less pretentious, and can sometimes happily surprise the reader by their high quality.

Take for example the flashy new doorstopper by Ilkka Remes, or a rather clumsily executed but at times bizarrely original private-eye story by Anja Angel, or a bittersweet tale of Russian-Karelian blood-and-crime-brotherhood by Matti Rönkä, or a feminist offering from Leena Lehtolainen. None of these makes any great claim to the status of art – they are honestly, at times brilliantly, crafted products of the genre that here and there reveal a glimpse of one or another of the true signs of real literature – originality, pain, and individuality – even if this is not necessarily presented with consummate technical skill.

Ilkka Remes’ thirteenth book Nimessä ja veressä (‘In the name and the blood’, WSOY, 2005) is strictly speaking the product of neither art nor craft so much as of a kind of industrial design. The writer’s name is a pseudonym and he makes very few public appearances, which perfectly matches the polished anonymity of his books. His themes are international terrorism, chemical warfare and political conspiracy. His plots teem with extra-powerful secret agents from a variety of security services, and he seasons the mix with a dose of competently researched local colour. In his latest offering, Nimessä ja veressä, the story moves be­tween fundamentalist Christians in the Bible belt of northern Finland, entrepreneurs in the tourist business, and the deserts of Iraq. Its action scenes are more convincing than those in some of his earlier novels in which a surfeit of heavy artillery, explosives and scrap metal sometimes confused the picture and made it difficult to understand which of the characters survived (not that knowing this was necessarily of vital importance). Reviewers have not praised Remes for creating interesting characters. But since his latest offering has sold 119,000 copies – an astonishing number and the highest figure among last year’s bestselling books in Finland – who cares if his books don’t exactly lead the field in psychological insight?

The success of the Da Vinci Code has proved that God, Jesus and all that is hot stuff these days, and Remes surfs the trend skilfully. His main character, a Bible scholar from the dark winters of the far north, is on the trail of something unique that has cast new light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, St Thomas’s Gospel and some discoveries in Qumran and attracted the attention not only of her old schoolmates and sisters-in-belief in the northern village of Pudasjoki but of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, too. The discoveries are then lost.

Now that he has a religious subject safely under his belt, Remes is already no doubt well advanced with his research into the avian flu pandemic that is now on its way to us.

The novels of Leena Lehtolainen are as easy to classify as the thrillers of Remes: socially-and gender-sensitive detective stories with wholesome human interest. Her plot construction is a little uneven – sometimes her motives and characters are believable, at others they seem forced. There is not much to say about her literary style – but for whatever reason, like many other people (her most recent book sold 50,000 copies in 2005). I have read all her crime novels with profit. In recent years she has alternated between a series built round the police officer Maria Kallio, and other novels in which violent crime within intimate family relationships is seen from a grassroots perspective. Possibly her family novels – Tappava Säde (‘Lethal Ray’), Kun luulit unohtaneesi (‘When you thought you’d forgotten’) and Jonakin onnellisena päivänä (‘One happy day’; Tammi) are her best, with their interesting prickly characters and greater feeling for sorrow and suffering.

However, Inspector Maria Kallio brings to the novels in which she appears a pleasant stability and fullness. Her children have now been born and her career is firmly established, but marriage complications remain and a little whiff of predictability is beginning to creep into the domestic scenes, something the reader can often identify with. Lehtolainen is quick to react to topical subjects. In her thirteenth novel Rivo Satakieli (‘Naughty Nightingale’, 2005), a prosperous prostitute is murdered as she is about to enter a television studio to take part in a live talk show. Just before this one of her associates, a young Ukrainian woman, is found on a forest path wearing nothing but a fur coat and boots with stiletto heels with her genitals brutally slashed. And one of Kallio’s female underlings, who has problems with female solidarity, becomes involved in shady business while planning her career.

If Lehtolainen is perhaps excessively politically correct from a feminist point of view, Anja Angel leans firmly in a trendier direction. Laitinen, Angel’s fat and ferocious female private detective and Laitinen’s assistant Marco in Marokkolainen makeinen (‘A Moroccan sweetmeat’, Otava, 2oo4) are both in their way queer and the relationship between them is described with warmth and sympathy, even playfully. Marco becomes rather lice besotted with a young Moroccan he’s supposed to be shadowing; their interaction is much more interesting than the strained plot. Angel is pleasantly different.

Matti Rönkä works as a news editor for Finnish television and has written three books centred on businessman and fixer called Viktor Kärppä. In Ystävät kaukana (‘Friends far away’, Gummerus, 2005), Rönkä’s fantasies of conspiracy have an altogether different and more intimate international flavour than those of Remes. Rönkä’s subject is what is popularly known in Finland as ‘eastern crime’, which includes everything from shady everyday business deals involving fake icons and old fridges to prostitution, drugs and contract murder.

Rönkä’s hero Viktor Kärppä belongs to the category ‘returning emigrant by grace of Koivisto’, i.e. he’s one of those former Soviet citizens of more or less Finnish stock who after the fall of the Soviet Union were granted Finnish citizenship and the right to ‘return’ to a homeland where they had never lived and whose language they couldn’t speak, by the President of the time, Mauno Koivisto (in office 1982­–94). Kärppä has built up a respectable building business in Finland. The sources of his original capital may not bear close inspection, but he no longer has links with drugs and prostitution, lives with a steady partner in a house of their own, and is determined to keep any unpleasant tastes or smells well away from his middle-class Finnish suburb. One day he gets an unwelcome visit from two well-dressed Russian gangsters who scare the wits out of his confused secretary and burn down his house. Someone is about to take over his firm, and it’s high time to find out who.

Rönkä’s two earlier Kärppä books, Tappajan näköinen mies (‘The man who looked like a killer’) and Hyvä veli, paha veli (‘Good brother, bad brother’) are somewhat hampered by tangled plots and a confusing cast of characters. Ystävät kaukana has a better balance between narrator and action, and the course of events is easier to grasp. Rönkä likes his principal characters. He manages to give them personality and individual dialogue, even feelings. The story is a sort of combination of melancholy road movie and picaresque novel, though normal human affections find a place in it too. The evil is not metaphysical but everyday, and the base human motives that lead to crime and deceit sit extremely well within the greater framework.

The border between Finland and Russia is one of the sharpest frontiers between prosperity and poverty in Europe, even in the whole world, and has long been a setting for undercover transactions. Rönkä presents this world with imagination and ingenuity through the story of this small-scale criminal, and the background is thoroughly researched and presented without fuss. Ystävät kaukana is a much smarter, warmer and more truthful book than it claims to be.

But no brief overview of Finnish crime fiction would be complete, however, without a mention of Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. After a career as a policeman spanning three decades and 11 novels, he is still writing though he publishes infrequently and is periodically afflicted by writer’s block. His more recent books have increasingly slipped into a kind of muffled, melancholy prose not normally associated with detective stories and thrillers. In fact, Harjunpää ja rakkauden nälkä (Harjunpää and the hunger for love’, Otava 1993) and Harjunpää ja pahan pappi (Harjunpää and the priest of evil’, 2003) are really meditations over various kinds of major deprivation, whether specifically within the family or the wider society, or more generally and existentially.

Concrete features – parts of dead bodies, crime scenes, victims and wrongdoers alike – have a marked tendency to blend into heavy metaphors for evil, want and suffering, though simultaneously preserving their original concrete quality. No one who has read Harjunpää ja pahan pappi will ever again be able to travel on the Helsinki Metro without being aware of the mysterious potential menace of the underground tunnel system and the shabby lives of those who live in it and never really belong to the daylight world.

Two of Joensuu’s book have been shortlisted for the Finlandia Prize. His concern with the requirements of the crime genre has diminished in inverse proportion to the growth of his obsession with affliction and deprivation. His innovative method of using trivial criminal material as a basis for heavily loaded symbols is literary in an individual and unpredictable way. None of the other books discussed here is unashamedly literary to the same extent.

If we were to arrange these samples of Finnish crime writing on a scale from the most formulaic to the most individual we should get: Remes – Lehtolainen – Angel – Rönkä, with Joensuu a few steps behind Rönkä, the most individual of all.

Remes’s writing is about as memorable as fish fingers, and one may well ask why any of us should be satisfied with such grub in a world that has oysters, goose liver and fresh aparagus to offer. For myself, I’m sure I could do without Remes for the rest of my life, and without fish fingers too.

But the safe comfort food of the intellect can sometimes contain surprises, so it would be rash to consider myself too fine for writers in this genre. Sometimes they have the courage to deviate from the standard recipe, and, losing themselves in some strange byway that really interests them, they may come up with something highly original.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Eight novels by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu have been translated into 13 languages; his Harjunpää ja pahan pappi (‘Harjunpää and the priest of evil’, 2004) was published in England in 2006 by Arcadia Books, translated by David Hackston. Crime novels by Leena Lehtolainen have been translated into ten languages .The first translation of a thriller by Ilkka Remes, Ikiyö (‘Eternal night’, 2004), was published in Germany by dtv in 2005 under the title Ewige Nacht, translated by Stefan Moster.


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