Interview with James Thompson, Author of Lucifer’s Tears

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Jim Thompson’s second Inspector Vaara novel, a follow-up to Snow Angels. I will be posting a review here soon–and in case you’re wondering, I loved the book–but meanwhile, Jim kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a resident of Finland. What draws you to the country?

It’s a common tale. I came here with a Finnish girl. The relationship didn’t last, but by that time my life was here: work, friends, I had just been accepted to The University of Helsinki. It’s a world class university and tuition-free for residents, and I wanted an education. I didn’t really have anything in the States to go back to, so I just stayed. By the time I finished my Master’s degree, a decade had passed. Now it’s been thirteen years. I’m married to a Finn. Making my home here was never really a conscious decision. I just sort of came here and never left. Now, culturally, I’m more comfortable here than anywhere else and have no desire to leave.

Your first book was set in the north of Finland during “kaamos” and had a very atmospheric, remote setting. Lucifer’s Tears moves Inspector Vaara to Helsinki. Why the change in setting?

It was largely a practical decision. Kittilä, where Snow Angels is set, has a population of less than six thousand people. If the series continues for some years, I would have to kill off about half of them, and that’s not realistic. Also, so much more happens here in the capital. It gives me a chance to explore more about Finnish culture than just small town life.

The books are in the first person from the perspective of a Finnish man married to an American woman, which provides American readers a chance to learn a bit about Finland. Do you find that Finnish readers respond to the books differently than American readers? Have you encountered differences in the things they particularly grab hold of?

Snow Angels and its sequel, Lucifer’s Tears, to be released in the U.S. on March 17th, have sold to publishers in about ten countries, eight or nine languages, and I guess you can buy Snow Angels in twenty countries or more, so I get feedback from the perspective of readers from many cultures. Yes, Finns and people from other countries filter the books differently as they read. I’m introducing Finland to international readers, whereas for Finns, I’m writing homegrown literature. In fact, the Finnish editions are slightly different (Lucifer’s Tears will be my fourth novel released in Finland). All the exposition about Finland that everyone here knows is cut out of the novels, so I don’t bore them to tears. I think Finns tend to read my novels with a more critical eye, because I’m a foreigner, always asking themselves if the story details ring true to them, call to mind their own life experiences. In this, I feel like I’ve been successful. Snow Angels sold very well here, and many people have told me how much the book has reminded them of their own lives. Occasionally, I get complaints that I’m portraying Finland as a nation where everyone is drunk or crazy, which is of course not the case. I write dark, noir fiction. I don’t work for the Finnish Board of Tourism. Sometimes, people here fail to understand that.

Lucifer’s Tears involves delving into history in a way that does not necessarily cast Finland’s leaders in a good light and challenges Finns to think about a past many have deliberately forgotten. Do you think raising these issues so pointedly will be controversial in Finland? Is this a debate already in the air there?

The Second World War is considered by many the crowning moment in Finnish history. It has developed into a mythological event. For Americans, this is something that may be difficult to understand, since that nation has been at war more or less since its inception, but Finland hasn’t been in a war since WWII, and although technically, it lost the war, little Finland fended off the mighty Russian bear, and the country is justly proud of it. I’ve written nothing in Lucifer’s Tears that hasn’t previously appeared in academic works, mostly read by few, but to my knowledge, the issue hasn’t been addressed in fiction, in an accurate yet critical way. I expect that my treatment of the subject may infuriate a great many people. I didn’t write this revanchist history for that purpose, but because after digging in researching, I found the issues raised fascinating, and I think others, both here and abroad, will share that fascination.

As in your first novel to be published in English, a sexually promiscuous woman is murdered gruesomely. Have you thought about killing a guy next time? Just wondering.

In the second book in the series, Lucifer’s Tears, the primary crime is also the murder of a woman. However, I’m now finishing the third in the series, tentatively titled True Finns, several murders take place, and most of the victims are male. There are female victims of crimes, but the story isn’t focused on solving the murder of a female to the extent that it is in both Snow Angels and Lucifer’s Tears. True Finns, more than anything else, revolves around high level political corruption.

In Lucifer’s Tears, family relationships for both the hero and his wife play a role. To riff off Tolstoy’s famous quote that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own ways, how would you describe the problems these families have, and in what way do these characters draw out cultural differences between Finland and the US? (sorry, that sounds like a book group guide question.)

I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the problems that the protagonist and his wife have with their own families. When their families meet though, the cultural differences between Americans and Finns cause the two families to clash, and those cultural differences are exposed, I think, quite poignantly.

You were contracted for another two books in the series. But (without giving spoilers) the ending of Lucifer’s Tears caught me by surprise. What’s next for Vaara?

In Book 3, True Finns, Vaara’s boss realizes that Kari Vaara has talents that could best be utilized outside of Helsinki homicide, and he moved Vaara to a division of the police similar to the American FBI, and placed in charge of his own team. He has a great deal of autonomy—answers only to the national chief of police—and the challenges that he must face in his new position often can’t be solved by methods that are strictly legal.

Thanks for indulging my questions. I look forward to reading True Finns!

For those who want to know more about the books, check out Jim’s Website. To know more about Finland and how to mix a drink also named Lucifer’s Tears, check out his blog.

something to look forward to

That amazing perpetuum mobile of European crime fiction, Karen Meek, has added three titles to her list of forthcoming Scandinavian crime fiction in English translation. What a lot to look forward to – More from Alvtegen, Nesbo, Nesser, and Stieg Larsson, among others.

The greatest surprise for me is the introduction of a work of psychological suspense by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver, being released for the first time in English by a small UK publisher – Sort of Books. They have published a number of Jansson’s books – short stories, a new translation of a Moomin children’s book, and a novel.

I’m not surprised that Jansson could write psychological suspense. Moomin Valley was a part of my childhood, and the mix of whimsical and psychologically complex characters living there was an early introduction to Scandinavian culture, along with Pippi Longstocking. Though they are mostly lighthearted, there was a definite undercurrent of emotional complexity among those trolls, particularly in the darnkness of winter. Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer and illustrator, began writing her Moomin books during World War II. I think I still have copies of Finn Family Moomintroll and Moominland Midwinter somewhere on my bookshelves.

If you are ever in Tampere, you can visit the Moomin museum in the basement of the public library. Even if you aren’t interested in Moomins, be sure to visit the library – it’s an amazing work of architecture, and (when I visited it many years ago) the only library I’d ever been in that served ice cream.

Finland reads!

Tess Gerritsen was recently in Finland and was impressed by the book scene there. The largest newspaper has a circulation of 400,000 – not bad when the country only has 5 million residents. A whopping 300,000 belong to the Great Finnish Book Club. She reports that romance isn’t terribly popular, but they read a lot of crime fiction.

And though they write their own, alas, not too many Finnish crime fiction writers have been translated into English yet. Though I was exposed to Finnish literature at an early age . . . and it has apparently inspired stencil artists as well. (Photo courtesy of Specialesumpen)