Finns in Minnesota – the Report

It could be a record – three Finnish crime fiction authors together at a single event in North America. It was also a lot of fun. I had a chance to meet the authors – Antti Tuomainen, Jari Tervo, and Jarkko Sipila – at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, and then used the excuse of delivering a book needed for display purposes to hear the authors speak at FinnFest without actually registering for the event. (There seemed to be quite a lot of registrants, so I didn’t feel too guilty.)  I also enjoyed finally meeting Juokko Sipila, publisher of Ice Cold Crime, which is doing a lot to bring translated Finnish literature to American readers.

While it will take me a while yet to post reviews of Tervo’s Among the Saints and Sipila’s latest Helsinki Homicide entry, Darling, I wanted to write about the authors’ appearance before I can’t make out the scribbled notes I took.  I won’t be able to review Antti Tuomainen’s next book until it comes out later this year or in 2015, but I will.

Finnish Authors in MN

Jari Tervo, Antti Tuomainen, Jarkko Sipila, and a short person; photo courtesy of Juoko Sipila

One thing that interested me is that, while people often speak of Scandinavian crime fiction as if it’s all somehow similar, these three writers are very different in style. Jarkko Sipila, who works as a television crime reporter in Helsinki in addition to writing 19 crime novels to date, writes in a style that would be familiar to fans of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. It’s an ensemble police procedural with an emphasis on representing crime and cops as realistically as possible. Jari Tervo is a huge celebrity in FInland, hosting a talk show that is wildly popular in addition to having published 23 books, three of which are crime stories. The only one to be translated is Among the Saints, just released, Like Sipila’s approach to urban crime, he’s interested in capturing the strange reality of life in northern Finland, through a raucous multi-voiced story about a murder, There are 35 narrators, with the first being the hapless victim, who starts the book with “I was killed the first week of May. It wasn’t even ten o’clock in the morning.” Where Sipila’s reality is gritty, Tervo’s is Rabelaisian. Tuomainen’s novel is about yet another kind of reality – the one we face as our planet’s climate changes. He imagines a world where refugees have fled north, the wealthy have retreated into guarded compounds, and a man tries to figure out where love and poetry belong in a time of chaos.

So, three completely different approaches to crime fiction – but a lovely trio when it came to talking about their writing.

Jari Tervo grew up in Rovaniemi, capital of Finland’s northernmost province and a center for tourists who want to see norther lights and learn about Saami culture. He wants to portray what life in this part of Finland is llike, and among the many voices in Among the Saints, we meet some really goofy characters. I asked how his portrayal of the north is recieved by northerners and he said they love it because they feel it truly captures their experience. He also, speaking at FinnFest, commented that light is a factor – living in darkness in the winter and constant light in summer tends to a certain amount of craziness. Tervo’s publisher has described his style as “Quentin Tarantino meets William Faulkner.” If we borrow zaninesss and a bit crime from Tarantino and the almost ethnographic community ensemble from Faulkner, this makes sense – but Tervo himself settled for “brilliant, yet cheap.” (He’s much funnier than Tarantino or Faulkner.) When he writes, he comes up with the first sentence and the last. “Then all I have to do is write the 300 pages in between.” Rather than have a detailed outline, he likes to see where things go: “writing is discovering.” He also talked about how difficult it is to translate a novel into film because you have to trim so much out. “A novel inhales a huge amount of information,” he said.

Jarkko Sipila’s first name in pronounced “YARK-ko” but when he was a small boy, he lived in Columbus, Ohio while his father attended graduate school at Ohio State. He was used to Americans mispronouncing his name and was quite excited about his fame when ads for Jarkko filters ran on television (since he was used to people calling him “charcoal”). He started to study engineering, but decided “Finland would be better off without bridges designed by me” so instead studied to become a journalist (which is also Tervo’s background). He grew frustrated reading about police in fiction who had floridly dysfunctional personal lives, yet were able to solve crimes singlehandedly with their brilliance. In reality, police officers suffering from alcoholism and traumatic stress wouldn’t be working, they’d be hospitalized. His police officers work as a team under the leadership of Kari Takamäki, a character who he says he has made deliberately a bit unexciting. When I asked about the experience of writing for Finns but having a much wider audience, he said that police have something in common worldwide. They want to catch the bad guys. In a sense that makes the police proedural an easily exported genre. A member of the audience asked whether it was problematic writing about crime in a country where there was so little of it. Sipila pointed out that while Finland has half the crime rate of the U.S., it has twice as many homicides as Sweden and four teimes as many as Norway. One contrast to the U.S., though, is that while gun ownership is quite high in Finland, guns are rarely used in homicides. Knives are a more common weapon. “We like to get in close,” he joked. He also mentioned that crime fiction became popular in Finland in the mid-1990s and he felt it was a response to the recession the country was going through at the time, that people were particularly receptive to the idea of violence having a reason behind it, of justice being served in fiction if not in daily life.

Antti Tuomainen is newer to publishing books (and the other two made a lot out of his having merely published five as opposed to 19 and 23!) Perhaps because his early writing career was in advertising, he came up with a catchy conept for The Healer: since it is a crime story, a romance, and a futurisitic dystopia, you get three books for the price of one! I asked him if he had any theories about why dystopia is suddenly so much a part of our popular culture and he wasn’t sure, other than that the impact of global warming is inescapably evident. He also pointed out that his dystopian novel predates The Hunger Games and all the ensuing imitations, so he was in the distrous future ahead of the pack. Unlike Sipila, who writes an outline, drafts a book in about two months, then does several revisions that take another couple of months, Tuomainen’s stories take longer to come together. “I can write a synopsis,” he said. “I just can’t stick to it.” He discovers things as he goes along, and he also senses when something isn’t right. He described it as being “out of tune,” something that is just discordant in the narrative and has to come out. One of his books was recently optioned for film. When he was asked if he would like to write the script, and he immediately said no. A script requires so many rewrites and so many changes demanded by others that he would find it a frustrating and time-consuming venture. His next book to be translated is titled Dark as My Heart, about a man who wants to find out what happened to his birth mother who disappeared when he was a child. It will be out in the UK from Harvill Secker next year; he told me there may be an ebook version available as soon as October. I look forward to it.

Thanks to Juoko Sipila, FinnFest, and Once Upon a Crime for hosting such an enjoyable encounter with these three fine – and very different – Finnish writers.


My book haul for the day.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen

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!

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.

un-Finnish-ed business

Peter would like the Finnish writing community to get a bit more proactive about promoting their writers so we can get more English translations. He mentions the small publisher, Ice Cold Crime, but thinks there’s a lot of good stuff that we’re overlooking. Peter also recently reviewed Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love, which he think is terrific and very Finnish.

James Thompson introduces a Finnish – uh, or maybe not Finnish, a citizen of the world – Joel Kuntonen who has traveled nearly everywhere on a Finnish passport but hates snow.  Jim also points out that Stieg Larsson is dead; get over it already, and writes a love song to Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page while under the influence of painkillers, a root canal, and a migraine. It has touches of Dan Brown. Just don’t piss off his lawyer.

As we are on the subject of Finland, I must give a shout-out to Pulpetti, “short reviews and articles on pulps and paperbacks, adventure, sleaze, hardboiled, noir, you name it. Peppered with some comments on everyday life of a writer and politics (mainly in Finland) and also some very, very high-brow literature.” The author publishes, among many, many other things, the crime fic magazine Isku, not to be confused with Iskra, Lenin’s little Communist Manifesto fanzine.

And whilst I’m at it – aw shucks – sometimes in the next month or two my book, Pyhimysmurha, will be published by Nemo, translated by Pekka Makkonen. Extremely loud “kiitos” to Pekka for pulling this off. The title appears to mean “Saint Homicide.” (The original idiomatic English title, In the Wind, didn’t work.) I like this one, though I am not sure how to pronounce it. PEEhimmisMURha? I will have to light a candle to this patron saint of murder.

photo of sticker art in Tampere, Finland courtesy of katutaide; photo of the altar de muertos courtesy of uteart-traveling.

a little linkfest

Shelf Awareness reports that “the late Stieg Larsson is the first member of the Kindle Million Club, according to Amazon, which announced that the Millennium Trilogy author has become the first writer to sell more than one million Kindle books.” Say what you like about Larsson and all the attendant hype, this makes me happy.

In the CS Monitor, Sarah Seltzer considers Salander’s (and Larsson’s) feminism.

Salander is a controversial figure; feminists and other observers are divided over the message she sends to women today. That debate, while valid, misses a key point: We should all celebrate the emergence of an utterly original female literary character. In an action-story landscape where women are too often relegated to girlfriend, sidekick or prey in need of defending, Salander grabs the spotlight and refuses to let it go. . . .

Larsson’s novels achieve something perhaps more difficult than advancing a social-justice cause: introducing an utterly original female character to the world, one who avoids the tired archetypes of helpless victim, lovelorn and needy single female, karate-kicking babe, ferocious tiger mother, or deranged scorned mistress. Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating mess, a real piece of work, but she’s active and human, more than one can say for than insipid Twilight heroine Bella Swan.

The Sipilas are in the Strib’s spotlight. Jarkko Sipila’s Finnish procedurals are being published in English translation by his brother in Minnesota. He has told me he is planning to publish at least one other Finnish writer, too. I reviewed Against the Wall and Vengeance here.

Maxine is now leading summer tours, and very entertaining they are, too. Denmark is one of her destinations.

Karen at Euro Crime reports the happy news that Norwegian writer  Thomas Enger now has an English language publication deal with Faber. I have happily updated my “wanted” page. Since I don’t have a picture of him, I thought I’d include one of Oslo’s mean streets (courtesy of jamtea).

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