Review: Kati Hiekkapelto – The Hummingbird

hummingbirdWe haven’t seen the volume of Finnish crime novels translated into English as I’d have expected given the rise in popularity of Nordic noir. I’m not sure why this is the case. Most of the books from Finland that I’ve read recently have been excellent but it may well be that we’re getting the cream of crime fiction from the country. The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto is a strong addition to the genre. There’s a rawness to the writing that comes from an author willing to take risks with their work.

Anna Fekke arrived as a child in Finland as a refugee from the Yugoslavian wars. She is now beginning a career as a criminal investigator in a northern Finnish town but is assigned to a team that seems oblivious to casual incidences of racism. Her first week is marked by the murder of a woman jogger and Anna’s inexperience as an investigator is exacerbated by her paring with a racist partner. Another murder, soon after the first, suggests the possibility of a serial killer which stretches the resources of the small team.

The Hummingbird is almost two separate narratives that intertwine to provide a substantial read. Firstly we have the murder and its investigation. There’s a serial killer thread which includes the placing of a ‘trophy’ on the victims. However, there’s a nice to twist to this storyline and I thought it well done. The book’s real strength, though, is the character of Anna Fekke and the focus on her coming to terms with her refugee past. You see Anna’s conflicted views towards both her own community which she tries to untangle herself from and also her new ‘home’ in the police which isn’t as expected. She’s a flawed character which adds to the depth of her portrayal.

Hopefully we’ll have further books from Hiekkapelto as the writing is crisp and refreshing. As a small addendum, I think the book cover is one of the nicest I’ve seen in a long time. I rarely pay any attention to them, but I thought this one beautiful.

Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy. The excellent translation was by David Hackston. The Hummingbird has been shortlisted for the 2015 Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction.

Review: Pekka Hiltunen – Black Noise

Black NoiseFinnish author Pekka Hiltunen sets his thrillers in London which can make him a difficult writer to review. Is he part of the Scandinavian crime fiction wave, or should he be looked at alongside other British writers who set their books in the Capital? I thought the first of Hiltunen’s books to be translated, Cold Courage, a solid thriller although not enough was made of the hint of supernatural or ‘otherness’ of Mari, one of the protagonists. This is partially addressed in this second book which although very readable is marred by an unbelievable plot.

Videos are being loaded on YouTube which show young, gay men being kicked to death outside pubs and clubs around London. They come to the attention of ‘The Studio’ a group created by Mari to avenge wrongs that society appears unable to prevent. Mari’s latest recruit to the Studio is Lia, a fellow Finn, who has a day job as a graphic designer. Convinced that the police will never be able to discover the perpetrator of the crimes, the group investigate the murders with tragic consequences for one of their members.

This is a difficult book to review without giving away huge spoilers. If you’re planning to read the book, I suggest you skip the next part.

The initial premise is promising. Given the dominance of social media, murders that are documented on YouTube have a sense of both the possible and the luridly surreal. The problem is that the Studio discover that the killings are connected to a fan’s obsession with the rock group Queen. What follows is an almost farcical plot that concludes with the group visiting Freddie Mercury’s place of birth in Zanzibar. Hiltunen has clearly done a huge amount of research into Mercury’s life but if, like me, their music leaves you cold, it’s hard to care what happens for the rest of the book.

There are some touching moments in the novel. We learn about Mari’s experimental upbringing at the hands of socially progressive parents and the immense damage it caused her family. There are also moments of camaraderie amongst members of the Studio which suggests that there is plenty more mileage left in the series.

Like Cold Courage, Black Noise was readable and the story cracked on at a great pace. The book wasn’t for me, I’m afraid, but perhaps Queen fans might take a more benign view of the plot.

Thanks to Hesperus for my copy. The translation was by Owen F Witesman

 

Review: Pekka Hiltunen – Cold Courage

Cold CourageI’ve been reading more Finnish books recently and it’s interesting to see the subtle differences in the crime fiction produced from the Scandinavian countries. I’ve noticed that, for example, with the books translated into English from Finland, there is a tendency to stretch the boundaries of the genre. Books have a dystopian or other-worldly feel to the setting which adds to the sense of dislocation and loss.

Cold Courage by Pekka Hiltunen is an unusual story about a Finnish expat living in London who unwittingly witnesses the aftermath of a violent murder of a Latvian prostitute and becomes drawn into the hunt for the murderer. This narrative strand would be interesting enough but Lia also meets a fellow Finn, Mari, who claims to be able to read the thoughts of the people around her. This dubious ‘gift has clearly caused Mari a great deal of personal distress and she now runs a secretive organisation that fixes people’s problems, stepping in where the law fails to act. Their latest target is a far-right politician whose violent domestic life and dodgy tax schemes are about to be revealed.

I think this is one of the first times that I’ve read a book set in London that has been translated from another language. Hiltunen has an instinctive feel for the city and in particular the sense of isolation that accompanies expat life. Lia’s backstory has particular resonance. The brief description of how she has professionally crawled her way into a decent job as a graphic designer on a newspaper rings true; London is the city where careers can be made by those willing to devote their time and energy in the pursuit of success. Her meeting with Mari comes on a night of drinking with colleagues and again the writer captures the manic, booze sodden feel of these evenings.

The murder of the woman from Latvia is an obsession for Lia and we are given glimpses of the Latvian community of woman sex workers who live in London. Lia’s difficulty in gaining information about these woman rings true and the legal difficulties of these women, who come from a country within the EU, make poignant reading. I personally found more interesting the story of Mari and her secretive organisation. There’s something attractive about a group of people who set out to right society’s wrongs and the unit, named ‘Studio’, is made up of four disparate people who work undercover to expose their targets. Mari is the driving force and, although she comes cleaarly across on the page, I would like to have seen more made of her gift of being able to read people’s thoughts and emotions. It seemed a little under-developed here but will make for a cracking series if Hiltunen writes any more novels.

I found the book to be an attractive and engrossing read and I hope that Hiltunen picks up some new fans through this publication. Thanks to Hesperus Press for my copy of the book. An interview with the author can be found here.

Review: Antti Tuomainen – The Healer

Finland has been something of the poor relation when it comes to the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction. I enjoyed Matti Joensuu’s the-healercreepy Priest of Evil  and the novels of German writer Jan Costin Wagner, whose series is set in Finland. However, now we have The Healer by Antti Tuomainen, first published in 2010 which won the award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year. Its recent translation into English hopefully marks a trend for more books from Finland to appear in the UK.

In the run-up to Christmas, Tapani Lehtinen, a minor poet is searching for his journalist wife Johanna who has suddenly disappeared. The only clue to her whereabouts was a final telephone call as she attempted to track down information about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’. Convinced that his wife has come to harm, Tapani visits her employer and friends to try to unearth the story that Johanna was working on. But Helsinki is slowly disintegrating in the midst of a climate catastrophe, residents are fleeing for the north of the country and the police are disinterested in helping Tapani find his wife.

This is the second book I’ve read featuring murder in a pre-apocalyptic setting. Ben H Winter’s The Last Policeman was one of my favourite crime reads of 2012 and it’s interesting how much tension you can get into a murder plot as society implodes on itself. Finalnd, and Helsinki in particular, seems ideally placed to feature a disintegrating community. The north of the country is portrayed as the utopia that city dwellers are trying to reach, allowing crime and disorder to fill the void in Helsinki.

The plot is interesting but nothing happens very fast. Tapani embarks on a lonely search for his wife, where no-one seems much interested in helping him out, not even close friends. He is sustained by the love that he feels for her, even when it comes under threat from the knowledge he discovers in relation to her past. But given that the action happens over a couple of days, the narrative seems both filled with events and yet nothing much happens.

The writing though is beautiful, the sparseness of the prose reflecting both the landscape and Tapani’s life as a poet. Ultimately the setting and writing were more successful that the plotting but it did feel like I was reading something different from the norm, which is always welcome.

The book has also been reviewed by Karen at Eurocrime who passed on her copy of the book to me. The translation was by Lola Rogers.