Review: Raid and the Blackest Sheep by Harri Nykanen

Raid is a criminal who slips back and forth across the Swedish/Finnish border, toying with the police, carrying out work for hire but adhering to his own moral code. In this entry in a long-running series that’s popular in Finland, the first to appear in English, Raid is assisting a fellow con, Nygren, who is old and sick and has scores to settle. He starts by accosting a preacher who manipulates the innocent for cash, informing his congregation  that their pastor is a fraud, “a ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing” and giving a sermon like none they’ve ever heard before. “Try not to be so gullible. The world is full of false prophets from the same stock as myself and this black-souled brother Koistinen. Be skeptical, but don’t stop searching. Maybe you’ll find a good shepherd yet. Remember that the tree is known by its fruit, and a bad tree bears no good fruit.”As he tells Raid afterward, “I didn’t read the Bible in prison for nothing.”

The pair moves on to put a violent drug dealer out of business, and tracks down a man who Nygren wronged many years ago to set things right. As they trek northward, toward the arctic circle, they are pursued by a couple of thugs and an ambitious and hard-nosed narcotics detective. Along the way we learn something about who Raid is through his dealings with both Nygren and with a police officer he trusts (whose story is interwoven with Raid’s). The hitman who is a deadly and competent killer as well as a man of conscience is something of a cliche, but Nykanen does a good job of bringing this stock figure to life. At one point, when a drunken Nygren tells his companion that he, too, will one day face a day of reckoning, Raid takes a shotgun outside to prowl the perimeters of their hideout, then lies on his back in an orchard and listens to the night, remembering how much he loved thunderstorms as a child. We never entirely get inside his head – he is an aloof and cautious man, not likely to let anyone inside – but the author manages to suggest there’s much more there than  the competent tough guy with a code. And he does it modestly, in spare but effective prose.

This new publication from a tiny publisher, Ice Cold Crime, brings another Finnish crime writer into orbit of the English-speaking world with a fine translation by Peter Ylitalo Leppa. I haven’t read enough Finnish crime fiction to draw sweeping conclusions, but what I have read suggests that Finns are interested in the dance between cops and criminals – not in the ghoulish “step into the mind of a serial killer” mode, or in the larger-than-life struggle between good an evil, but in  the people whose job it is to pursue criminals, the human beings who commit crimes, and the damage they do to society and to themselves. There’s a fascinating balance of sympathy and hard-headed realism in this story that I find refreshing.

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