Review: Lucifer’s Tears by James Thompson

Lucifer’s Tears, the follow-up to Snow Angels, Thompson’s first mystery to be published in English, once again showcases the author’s considerable strengths, not the least of which is excellent writing. Both stories are narrated in the first-person voice of Inspector Kari Vaara, a troubled but deeply moral cop facing difficult odds. It again has a vividly realized (and very cold) Finnish setting with cultural interpretation provided by Vaara’s American wife, who is adjusting to an unfamiliar society. And in this book, as in the first of the series, Vaara is investigating a vicious and violent sex crime. But while I found great strengths in the first book, particularly in the setting and the stylish writing, I am even more deeply impressed by this book, which has all that plus an absorbing and well-constructed plot paired with engaging character development.

The title comes from the opening passages, in which Vaara reflects on his home: “Finland. The ninth and innermost circle of hell. A frozen lake of blood and guilt formed from Lucifer’s tears, turned to ice by the flapping of his leathery wings.”

He has moved from the rural north to Helsinki. Though he misses his hometown, north of the Arctic Circle, his wife was offered an opportunity to advance her career and live in a place less isolated. He has been promised a spot on Helsinki’s homicide squad, though he has been sidelined for months, awaiting the opportunity to be part of a crack team that has successfully closed every case for nearly two decades. When he finally gets his chance, he gets a double-barreled shot at failure. Just as he and his intelligent but immature sidekick Milo get to investigate a gruesome crime that is more complicated than it seems, he has also been asked to talk to an elderly military hero who is at risk of extradition over alleged war crimes. Vaara is chosen for that bit of quiet diplomacy because his beloved grandfather was in the same unit as the hero. But he soon learns something that is disturbing: both men fought on the side of the Nazis against the Russians and were involved in executing Jewish prisoners in a camp located in a part of Karelia that ended up in Soviet hands. Finnish officials hope Vaara can make it go away. They don’t want their hero’s reputation tarnished—nor does the public want to confront their own complicated past.

In addition to these two intriguing plot lines, Vaara’s American wife is pregnant again after losing twins. He doesn’t want to worry her, but he’s been suffering from excruciating headaches. Another pair of headaches arrive in human form, his brother- and sister-in-law, visiting from America. His wife essentially raised them after their mother’s death, but they have grown into strangers, her brother turning into an extravagant alcoholic, her sister a repressed and judgmental Christian. Their collisions with Finnish culture – and with each other – add an extra dimension of conflict to the story, which moves along at a smart clip.

The two plotlines twist and twine together, offering the reader a look at Finland’s complicated past, in which Finns fought fiercely for independence, trapped between Nazis and Russians, between their own pro- and anti-communist factions. Now the Soviet menace is gone, but corrupt thugs from the New Russia require a new balancing act from the country that has long absorbed the shocks between Russia and the West. For non-Finnish readers, the book offers and absorbing peek into the history and turmoil that has shaped Finland; for Finns it may well rip off the scabs of the turmoil that formed the nation. The character of Arvid Lahtinen, the 90-year-old war hero, is a marvelous invocation of the complicated, cunning, and shrewd politicking that underlies Finnish independence. The conclusion of the book weaves together the plots and the emotional threads in a manner that is both exhilarating in its brio and quietly but profoundly moving.  Highly recommended.

James Thompson is an American-born writer who has long lived in Finland and was first published in Finnish translation. You can read an interview with the author here. Cathy has also reviewed the book at her blog, Kittling: Books.