a review of Jarkko Sipila’s Against the Wall

Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall by Jarkko Sipila, translated by Peter Ylitalo Leppa (Ice Cold Crime, June 2009)

Though Finland’s literary scene is a lively one, not very many Finnish writers have had their crime fiction translated into English. A small publishing start-up in Minnesota is setting out to change that. Ice Cold Crime has just published its first title, Jarkko Sipila’s Against the Wall. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the publisher, who happens to be the brother of the author. I admit to having slight misgivings about that all-in-the-family relationship, but the fledgling publisher is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and is taking an all-business approach. The first volume hot off the press is nicely produced, very affordably priced, and the translation is as straightforward as the story (though noticeably Minnesotan – “hot dish” is served up in one scene, and a housing style is described as a “rambler” – which would be casseroles and ranch houses in other places; not that I object, being fluent in Minnesotan myself).

Against the Wall is a no-nonsense gritty police procedural that gives equal time to the crooks and the cops and rather more time to plot than to character development. Pitted against an ensemble cast of police, with an undercover officer who plays both sides taking a lead role, there is a ragtag group of cons, ranging from a low-level junkie who runs errands and tries unsuccessfully to avoid getting in over his head, to a businessman who lives in an expensive Art Nouveau buliding, his luxurious lifestyle paid for by arranging deals with Russian partners to fudge shipping manifests, turning a truckload of rubber gloves into a profitable shipment of large-screen televisions.

The story begins with a man being lured to an isolated garage where he is executed in cold blood; a second man is similarly lured to the site, where he is told to dispose of both the weapon and the body. He doesn’t have the stomach for this kind of violence and he panics, later trying to get out of the crack by tipping off the undercover cop, though for a time he becomes their prime suspect.

For a relatively short book – coming in at just under 300 pages – there’s a lot going on, with the scene shifting from seedy parts of Helsinki to prisons to wealthy neighborhoods, the point of view roving from one perspective to another. Though Sipila doesn’t indulge in the meditative character analysis of so much Scandinavian crime fiction – we see little of the home life of the police, and they are too busy knocking heads and following leads to indulge in personal introspection – there are some quick sketches that make a vivid impression: Juha Saarnikangas, the hapless addict who gathers crumbs at the fringes of criminal tables, and who can deliver an impromptu lecture on Finnish architecture; Markus Markkanen who is always on the lookout for ways to skim a percentage off of whatever scam is going down; Jouku Nyholm, a depressive customs inspector who is trapped in a meaningless job with a viscious boss; and Suhonen, a cop who is totally at home among criminals. It is he who pulls together the threads of the plot, tying the murder, the black market dealings, and the criminal rivalries together in a . . . well, if it’s in Helsinki, can it be described as a Mexican standoff? At any rate, the book begins and ends with violence, and in the middle shows criminals trying to score a few extra points against each other, as the police work together to solve the murder.

The author, a journalist who has covered crime for both newspapers and television, has written eleven books, most of them entries in this series. He has also written scripts for a televised version, and it’s easy to see how well this story, which won the 2009 Clue award for best work of Finnish crime fiction, could translate to the screen.  Though chances are Finnish readers are well familiar with the police characters, from the squad room clown, Mikko Kulta, to the lieutenant in charge, there’s no missing backstory to confuse the new reader. The large number of characters and their unfamiliar names can be a challenge, but luckily there’s a character list in the front of the book to help keep them straight. And though a map might have come in handy, too, the author provides a good sense of place, showing Finland as a borderland between a typically orderly Scandinavian state and the new Russia, between law and disorder, a country that has a a unique language but which has changed hands between Sweden and Russia over the years, a place where Western Europe rubs up against the wild frontier of Eastern Europe. A good place, in other words, to spin tales about crime, corruption, and cops.

For more about the author, see an nterview at finpop. Juri Nummelin has the backstory to the new publishing endeavor at pulpetti; Peter Rozovsky discusses the book at his invaluable Detectives Beyond Borders. And Glenn Harper reviews it at International Noir Fiction.

It looks as if we’ll see more Finnish crime fiction from Ice Cold Crime, and I am looking forward to it.

photo courtesy of lasi.kurkijarvi

5 thoughts on “a review of Jarkko Sipila’s Against the Wall

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