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

random round-up

Peter beat me to reviewing a new English translation of Jarkko Sipila’s Against the Wall, just published this month by Ice Cold Crime, a new small publishing house in Minnesota that promises to bring more Finnish crime fiction into English. I am about halfway through it and hope to post a review next week, but so far agree with Peter that it’s a gritty procedural that doesn’t mince words but gets on with the story of petty criminals caught up in a dangerous trade – and the team of police who track them down.

An anonymous Australian bibliophile at The Genteel Arsenal samples Swedish crime fiction after reading about the BBC Branagh version of Mankell’s series and is favorably impressed when reading Sidetracked. She(?) picks up on several features that make it unique: a vulnerable hero who is dismayed by crime and has family issues, its insight into Swedish society as the police try to come to grips with the kind of violence they think only happens in America, and complex rendering of victims and criminals.

Wilda Williams of Library Journal has an interview with Sonny Mehta, publisher of the US edition of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Paul Bogaards, Knopf’s executive director of publicity.

Norm (aka Uriah) has now read all of the International Daggar contenders and is wondering how the judges will make their choice. He has so far winnowed Vargas and Arnaldur Indridason from the list, arguing the current nominees are not their strongest work, but is making us wait as he ponders the remaining four excellent Scandinavian contestants. Meanwhile, you can read his reviews of them all.

UPDATE: I’ve taken so long preparing this round-up that Norm has posted his hot tip. Or perhaps its a properly cold one. In any case, you must read his rationale, which manages to make all the contenders sound good.

Kerrie reviews Jo Nesbo’s Redeemer and gives it (and the translator) high marks. I especially liked this bit: “You can almost feel Nesbo building this book, layer on layer, investigating how events that took place over a decade before, can have consequences in present time.” What a great description. No wonder I love his stuff.

More on K.O. Dahl’s Last Fix from International Noir Fiction. Sounds like an unusual structure at work.

Martin Edwards talks about Hakan Nesser at his blog with the great title, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

John Baker reviews Peter Høeg’s Borderliners, calling it “a difficult and inspiring novel, rich in meditations on the human condition.” Not exactly crime fiction, but mentioned because so many of us know the author via Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

And finally, my somewhat Scandinavian crime fiction-related news: I just signed a contract with a Finnish publisher, Nemo, who plans to publish a Finnish translation of my mystery In the Wind. I couldn’t be more pleased to have a chance to be part of the Scandinavian crime fiction scene, even if the book is set in Chicago. A great big kiitos to the Finnish reader who brought it to their attention.

at the Finnish line – and more

Glenn Harper reviews Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love at International Noir Fiction, pointing out that the vagaries of translation have really hampered access to this Finnish writer’s work: “of Joensuu’s 10 novels, we have only the ones written at 10-year intervals.” But he looks on the bright side: “However unfortunate it is that we have to wait, and that there are 7 of Joensuu’s novels featuring Helsinki detective Timo Harjunpää still untranslated, we are lucky to now have To Steal Her Love, which succeeds on every level.” It features the p.o.v. of an unusual criminal who sees the colors of tumblers as he pickes locks and animates everything in his environment. “He names everything that is important to him: each of his feet has a name, his flashlight and knife have names, and he gives his own names to the women whose apartments he enters when they are asleep.” He concludes: “This is a book that deserves a wide audience, much wider than Joensuu has up to now received in the English-speaking world.” I’m sold.

Speaking of Finnish writers, an English translation of Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall has just come on the market from a small publishing start up in my home state of Minnesota. Since the publisher shares the same last name, it’s quite possibly a family affair. In any case, Finland has a lively crime fiction scene, so more translations are always welcome.

If you’re in a betting mood, you can predict who you think will win the international dagger at Euro Crime – or vote for the book you wish would win – or take a poll on which ones you’ve read at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise (on the right-hand side of the page). Norm (aka Uriah) calculates the odds based on translators and their past credits (fascinating!) while wondering where all the German and Dutch books are.

Sunnie has a review of Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher up on her blog. She found it full of good twists and turns and seamlessly translated.

Ed Siegel reviews Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes for the Boston Globe and finds it both almost comically morose (the main character has a dreary life and even his cat is on the verge of death) but also a surprisingly good read, and better than other of Mankell’s standalones.

And finally,Mike Goodridge at Screen Daily opines that the success of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy may predict a new sort of pan-European blockbuster based on the appeal of Lizabeth Salander.

So what makes Millennium special? It is, after all, 152 minutes long and in Swedish. Perhaps the 14 million readers around the globe of the late Stieg Larsson’s three novels know the secret – principally the title character, a twentysomething sociopath called Lisbeth Salander who is also a brilliant computer hacker.

In Salander, audiences have found a thoroughly original heroine or anti-heroine. Prone to violence and anti-social behaviour, she is pierced, tattooed and bisexual. Played in the film by newcomer Noomi Rapace, she is also a crusader trying to clear her name and a righteous defender of women against the abuses of men.

The character is not too distant from Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond – ruthless, homicidal kind-of-good guys out for blood.

Only female. Bisexual. Wounded. Quite a variation on the theme, but the most popular figure in a whole crop of kick-ass outsider women who have cropped up in the genre lately (and for the most part written by male authors such as Tim Maleeny and Greg Rucka), an interesting development in the gendering of crime fiction.