Review: Jan Costin Wagner – Light in a Dark House

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Jan Costin Wagner. I read his first book, Ice Moon, back in 2006 when it was first translated into English. Since then, the books have slowly been slowly trickling through, each one eagerly awaited by me. I was lucky enough to meet the author at the CWA Crime Writing Festival in July and discuss his writing with him. There is strong sense of development in the series. The first book opens with the death of Sanna, the wife of police detective Kimmo Joentaa. It sets the tone for the rest of the books: sad, reflective and sometimes utterly bleak. By the end of The Winter of the Lions, Kimmo has entered into a relationship with a prostitute, who he only knows by her assumed name, Larissa. This provides the starting point for the fourth book in the series, Light in a Dark House.

Kimmo is called to investigate the case of a woman in a coma who has been killed while the murderer wept over the body. It triggers a series of murders which have their roots in the brutal assault in a teenage girl in the 1980s. Kimmo tries to unravel the case while fruitlessly e-mailing his girlfriend who has left home following an awkward meeting with his boss at his party. But Larissa’s experience as a prostitute is also giving her insight into the violent motives behind the murder.

The book, for me, lived up to my expectations largely I suspect because Costin Wagner doesn’t churn out his novels. Instead, we’re getting a slow but reflective series that deals with some of the potent issues in Finnish society – in this book it’s the violence against women. The descriptions of Finland are divine and it is here that the German author’s view from outside of the culture is so interesting.

The relationship between Kimmo and Larissa does get a little wearying at times. I found that the detective’s obsession with the enigmatic prostitute was allowed to dominate the narrative in some sections but then Costin Wagner’s books have always been more about relationships than simply a straightforward murder plot.

I hope that Light in a Dark House introduces new fans to this wonderful writer. I suspect his books won’t be for everyone. There’s nothing warm or cosy about either the content or the style of his books. But, for me, he’s one of the best.

Review: Jan Costin Wagner – The Winter of the Lions

I read Wagner’s first book Ice Moon when it came out in 2006 and loved it. It was a moving tale of a murder investigation set to the background of a man’s grief for his recently dead wife. It could have been a difficult subject to get right but was very well done. However the writer dropped off my radar and his follow-up book Silence, published in 2010, passed me by. I noticed recently that he had had a third book published in 2011 so I did a quick catch up over Christmas, taking in both Silence  and his latest book The Winter of Lions.

The Winter of Lions features, once again, Detective Kimmo Joentaa who is investigating the murder of two men who have recently been guests on a famous TV talk show. The subject of the discussion had been the investigation of violent death and now both the forensic pathologist and the puppet maker, an expert at recreating dead bodies, have been killed. Kimmo is convinced that the key to the murder lies in the lifelike nature of the puppets and that one of the models was recognised by the killer. Once again Wagner manages to make the plot interesting without being too gruesome. The puppet maker has used photographs of violent deaths from plane and train crashes and somehow this doesn’t come across too gory in Wagner’s hands. The plot is slightly bizarre, but not so much so that it is completely unbelievable.

An interesting sub-plot was the emergence of a woman in Kimmo’s life, the enigmatic ‘Larissa’ whose background is uncertain. She is a hazy and slightly suspicious figure although Kimmo is obviously drawn to her. I imagine that she will feature heavily on later books but here she plays a supporting role, entering Kimmo’s life during the lonely Christmas period.

I had forgotten what a good writer Wagner was. His prose has a sparseness and matter of fact quality which works so well when dealing with difficult subjects. He is most definitely back on my radar now.

For other reviews see Eurocrime and International Noir Fiction.