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: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – Someone to Watch Over Me

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is one of my ‘must read’ writers. Her series featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir has been consistently strong YSwith solid plots that provide a clear-eyed view of modern Iceland. The last book I reviewed was a departure for Yrsa. I Remember You was a supernatural thriller that, while enjoyable, didn’t feel quite as innovative as her crime books. However her latest offering, Someone to Watch Over Me, is a return to form and another Scandinavian book that deals with the devastating effect of fire.

Jakob, a young man with Down’s syndrome is convicted of starting a fire that burned down his care home, killing five people. He is sent to a psychiatric unit where one of his fellow inmates is convinced of his innocence. However, Josteinn is psychopath who repulses those he comes into contact with. Thora is reluctant to take on the case but soon becomes convinced that a cover-up has taken place and that the murderer is still at large. However, a key witness is suffering from locked-in syndrome and struggles to communicate the true version of events of the fateful fire.

Part of the charm of this series is the way in which the personality of Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is allowed to direct the narrative. We get a strong sense of Thora’s personal struggle with the official version of events, the way in which the police investigation is handled and the problems associated in dealing with a client who is a multiple murderer. All of this shapes the course of events as Thora digs deeper into the past. I was initially concerned about yet another portrayal of a victim with locked-in syndrome. It is such a rare illness and yet is seems to pop up with relative ease in crime novels. However, here it was handled well and there are no easy solutions for the victim.

The book gives a fairly damning portrait of social service care in Iceland. Patients with multiple and differing needs are lumped together in institutions that fail to adequately care for patients. It is left to families to try to unlock solutions to their children’s conditions and in this atmosphere poor judgements are made.

The book is an excellent read in a series that goes from strength to strength.