Thanks to Ice Cold Crime, a small Minnesota publishing house that specializes in translations of Finnish crime fiction (and which kindly provided me with a review copy), readers in the US have a chance to discover another talented Finnish crime fiction author. Seppo Jokinen has been busy over the years, publishing 17 books in the Sakari Koskinen* series. Though Wolves and Angels is not the first volume in the series, it won an award for best Finnish mystery of the year in 2002 – and is an excellent place to get acquainted with Sakari Koskinen and his fellow investigators.
When a body is discovered in a wooded area of Tampere**, the police aren’t sure who the dead man is, or how he died, until the results of the autopsy are in: he was suffocated with pillow, and he hadn’t been able to fight back because he had been paralyzed for at least a decade. That fact leads the police to Wolf House, a group home where several people live lives as independently as their disabilities let them. The dead man, it turns out, is one of the “Fallen Angels,” a group of wheelchair-bound would-be motorcycle gang members. Someone has it in for residents of Wolf House. As the police delve into the victim’s past and the various enemies he has made over the years, another resident is suffocated, and the staff and residents wonder what kind of killer would be targeting people with disabilities.
The novel is long, but (unlike so many these days) never felt padded to me. Instead, it was a well-constructed story in which the police piece together the story of a crime, bit by bit. In many ways, the police procedural is an exploration of workplace culture and interpersonal relationships. Koskinen, a driven cop who has recently been divorced and is trying to piece together a new relationship with his teenage son, supervises a team of detectives and works at smoothing over disputes and overly-pointed barbs. Thanks to some rivalry between his division and patrol officers, he ends up competing against younger, fitter officers in a marathon (which he has been training for, but might have to forfeit in the press of work). He also has a challenging young intern who is managing the office, helpfully rearranging things and causing chaos while the department’s assistant is on maternity leave. Milla the intern nearly steals the show with her perky optimism and a knitted cap that she habitually wears that has a point on it that waves about like an expressive antenna.
The plot is nicely convoluted, the characters are vividly drawn, and the subject of living with disabilities is handled well. The members of Fallen Angels are, well, hardly angels, but we discover along with the police what it’s like to have a disability and live in a world full of obstacles and missed opportunities. It’s an absorbing book with a likable protagonist who I hope to see again.
Praise is also due to Owen Witesman, whose translation is so good it completely disappears. I am looking forward to reading more of his work, too. His translation of Leena Lehtolainen’s My First Murder, the first in the Maria Kallio series, is due for publication in late 2012.
*No relation to a certain American fictional detective named Anni Koskinen.
**I spend a little time in Tampere many years ago and thought it was a terrific city. We were able to buy really practical rain gear for our children (it rained for two weeks straight) at one of the best second-hand stores ever, and the public library was lovely – and they served ice cream!