review of Vengeance by Jarkko Sipila

Jarkko Sipila, Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance translated by Peter Ylitalo Leppa (Independence, MN: Ice Cold Crime, 2010).

The second novel in the “Helsinki Homicide” series to be translated into English (though not the second in the series – the author has published eleven books, some of them earlier entries in this series) is another no-frills, hardboiled and gritty crime story that pits a dedicated police unit against criminals.

A gang leader has just been released from prison. As the second in command of the Skulls, he begins to rebuild an organization that is crumbling, thanks to successful prosecutions and competition from other  criminal organizations that are angling for a chance to get in on the action. Undercover officer Suhonen connects with another ex-con, a close childhood friend who took a different path in life. Eero Salmela wants to go straight but faces an uphill battle. When he gets in a bind, becoming an informant is either a chance to escape a long prison sentence–or a death sentence.

The story is a bit slow to start, but I found the second half more compelling. With the police on one side, doggedly gathering evidence, and the criminals on the other, taking a brutal approach to organizational dynamics, the sides play out their chess moves with the black and white pieces clearly demarcated. But it is Suhonen and Salmela who are the most valuable pieces in play, and they are not so clearly black and white.

Unlike much crime fiction, the personal lives of the detectives are lightly touched on; this story is all business. The criminals, too, are straightforward in their goals; they are not larger than life or exotically evil, they are just a business organization bonded by violence and heavily invested in illegal trade. If anything characterizes this series, it’s gritty realism. There are no heroes here, just hardworking police trying to keep the lid on crime. The characters keep their feelings close to their chests, but the relationship between Suhonen and Salmela makes for an interesting intersection of both worlds. In some ways Sipila’s work reminds me of the human comedy that John McFetridge is creating in his books about Toronto, but without the literary grace notes, the insights into character, or the complication of police corruption.

Neither Toronto nor Helsinki might strike the average American as flashpoints for  violent organized crime, but both authors take us to the shady side of the street and create a teeming world where both cops and the criminals they pursue seem locked into a weary and unending game where a checkmate doesn’t end anything; the board is just set up again for the next round.

The translation is very well done; the lack of literary stylistics seems to be an authorial choice to present a stripped-down, story-driven tale sprinkled with a light dusting of irony. As with the first book, rather than being transported to a richly realized world, I felt as if I were watching a televised police series, one that valued story  more than character development, and realism over dramatic plot twists.

Peter also has a review of this book at the Nordic Bookblog.  He concludes it is “suspenseful, exciting, fast paced, and written in a crisp style, full of cynicism and dark humor.”