Nothing but the Truth by Jarkko Sipila – a review

nothing but the truth - sipilaIce Cold Crime, a small publisher in Minnesota, has added another title to the their list of Finnish translations, a 2006 entry in Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide series. (These do not need to be read in order, a good thing as they have followed the tradition of being translated out of order.)

In Nothing but the Truth, Mari Lehtonen, a single mother, witnesses a gangland murder and decides, after some inner struggle, to heed the requests being broadcast by the police for witnesses to come forward. Though this seems to be the way people ought to behave, she soon realizes the gangsters whose dispute was settled with a bullet see it as a shocking breach of thug etiquette, the police are surprised (but pleased), and she has put her daughter’s life in danger. When the killers tries to shut her up, the police move the woman and her daughter to a safe house, but she is outraged by the fact that her act of good citizenship has made her a prisoner – while the criminals remain free.

There’s not much that Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamaki can do, other than counsel patience and offer protection until her testimony is given. There’s not even a guarantee of a conviction, given that  the criminal organization can afford good lawyers. While Takamaki and his police team try to keep their witness under wraps, Suhonen, an undercover cop who seems equally at home in the squad room and among the subjects of his investigations, breaks the news to the victim’s father, a career criminal himself who has his own ideas about the course of justice.

This is a fascinating story about the various players involved in crime – the police and the criminals who understand the rules of engagement and an ordinary citizen who doesn’t care about those rules, but believes she shouldn’t be punished for doing the right thing. One of the criminal characters describes the ongoing battle between him and the police as a war, one that only accidentally catches up civilians as collateral damage; another criminal describes the situation as maintaining the “balance of terror, just like in Soviet times.” Only Mari Lehtonen seems to have a clear view of right and wrong, and this seemingly mousey woman turns out to have a firm spine and stubborn courage.

Sipila’s world is gritty, but not cynical, and he tells a lively, well-paced story without favoring outsized dramatic situations  or moral dilemmas over human-sized conflicts. In other words, he doesn’t write the kind of emotion-laden morality plays that seem so popular in the US thriller market. That’s one reason why this story feels fresh.

In an effort to explain to undergraduates who haven’t read a lot of crime fiction how varied the genre is, I have this diagram I sketch out on the board,  with an axis that represents the spectrum from light to dark and another one that runs from realistic to mythic. Some dark thrillers are no more realistic than the fluffiest of craft cozies; some light mysteries do a good job of representing the incursion of violence into an otherwise ordinary situation, which is more real to most of us than, oh, serial killers or ninja assassins or heroic cops on a mission from God. I’m not sure this is the best way to diagram variations on the mystery, but it’s what I’ve come up with.

Sipila’s police procedurals edge into the darker end of the spectrum, without being gruesome or stylishly nihilistic in the noir tradition. On the realism – mythic axis, however, they are firmly at the realistic end of the scale. The bad guys can be really bad, but they’re human. The cops are good, but human, too, and their limitations are disillusioning to Mari Lehtonen, whose refusal to be a casualty in the war between cops and crooks is quietly heroic.

A great deal of my pleasure in reading this story is owed to Peter Ylitalo Leppa, whose translation is once again superb. Translators are in the unenviable position of being most successful when we don’t notice them. Leppa has perfected invisibility and deserves high praise for it. Other works he has translated include

Kiitos to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.

an update – with a little help from my friends

Jane at the Madison (Wisconsin) public library reviews Jussi Olsen-Adler’s Keeper of Lost Causes (published as Mercy in the UK) and says it’s “a suspenseful, sometimes darkly funny, mystery thriller that is my number one book so far this year.”

Shelf Awareness dedicates an issue of its “maximum shelf” to it as well.

NancyO reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage, finding it a good addition to the series though, with its focus on Elinborg as the detective this time, she finds the domestic bits a tad overdone.

She also reviews Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, and recommends it, though it won’t deliver edge-of-the-seat thrills so much as solidly-assembled ensemble procedural work conducted by a large cast of police. She plans to read as many in the series as she can, though it has taken ages for this first English translation to actually appear.

Glenn Harper is not mesmerized by Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist.

Peter, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past, the fourth book in her series about lawyer Rebecka Martinsson and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella. It also gets a thumbs up at The Bookbag, which says it’s “not strictly a police procedural, as we know pretty much what has happened from early on, but more of a psychological thriller and an intriguing mystery as to why two young people died.”

There’s an interview with Asa Larsson in The West Australian, in which she says her own past not only involves growing up in Kiruna and being a lawyer, like Rebecka Martinsson, but also a period of time involved with a fundamentalist church, which is interesting in view of the themes of her first two books.

He also gives Jarkko Sipila’s Nothing but the Truth high marks, saying it is “a very entertaining, suspenseful and excellently plotted crime fiction novel” that raises important questions about the role citizens play in criminal justice. I just recently finished this myself, and agree – review to follow soon.

Jose Ignacio Escribano thinks that Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions is not the best of her books, but still worth a read, being disturbing, intense, and intelligent.

He also gives Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices high marks for being humane and well-written, as well as complex, dealing with the theme of stolen childhood sensitively.

Karen Meek reviews the audio version of Camilla Lackberg’s The Gallows Bird, which she feels has a rather disappointingly hole-prone plot but is nevertheless an entertaining story, nicely narrated by Eammon Riley.

Maxine Clarke thinks very highly of Johan Theorin’s third book in the Oland quartet, The Quarry, which is no doubt going to be a strong contender for the CWA’s International Dagger.

Quentin Bates has lived in Iceland, but is not an Icelander, yet makes it his fictional home. Crimeficreader (Rhian Davies) enjoyed his mystery, Frozen Out, particularly enjoying the strong female lead, ‘Gunna’ Gunnhildur Gisládottir.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen traveled in the opposite direction; this Danish author’s ebook mystery, The Cosy Knave, is set in Yorkshire, and has been discussed by two Australian readers, Kerrie and Bernadette, who has been in on the mystery from the start.

Bernadette also reviews Thomas Enger’s Burned, a “solid debut” that didn’t have its plot entirely under control, but has strong characters, even those that are not at all likeable.

Rohan Maitzen has a nice essay on the Martin Beck series and how it challenges those who persist in thinking crime fiction is good only when it “transcends the genre.”

Despite the persistent assumption that some literary forms are inherently more formulaic than others, all writing relies on genre markers, and “genre” itself is a notoriously unstable term, invoking categories that are both permeable and endlessly mutable. The real issue — the critical issue — is how form is used, what it enables us to discover. We shouldn’t ask whether crime fiction needs to transcend its traditional forms, but rather how those forms have evolved, and what they have made possible. . . . Sjöwall and Wahlöö are among those who show that, in the hands of visionary and capable writers, crime fiction can simply be great literature. The only transcendence required is the reader’s.

Norm and the new translator of the Annika Bengtzon series untangle the series order for us. It’s a bit unusual for a publisher to spring for all new translations of a previously translated work, unless you are Tolstoy. But, to stick to publishing tradition, they are giving books new titles to make it all more exciting to shop and are keeping the US and UK publications out of sync. Good to know they aren’t breaking all the rules.

Looks as if Leif G. W. Persson’s series about Evert Backstrom is destined for the American small screen.

Peter Rozovsky, always on the lookout for humor, finds some in Three Seconds. He also notes a lot of border-crossing going on in Swedish crime fiction that harkens back to the old days of the Hanseatic League.

Laura DeMarco rounds up lots of Scandinavian crime at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a nicely detailed piece, with a sidebar on “ten essential authors.”

And finally, I’ve mentioned it before but I owe the Crime & Mystery Fiction friendfeed group, founded by Maxine Clarke, an enormous debt for finding and commenting on so many fascinating links related to the genre. Not only is it a good place to find out what’s going on, it’s inhabited by charming and well-read fans of the genre.