Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

Creative Commons License


#18 Jan Costin Wagner / The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner, The Winter of the Lions, translated from German by Anthea Bell (London: Harvill Secker, 2011 [2009]). The third novel in the beguiling Kimmo Joentaa series. 4 stars

 Opening sentence:  Kimmo Joentaa had been planning to spend the last hours of Christmas Eve on his own, but it didn’t turn out like that.

I was given a copy of The Winter of the Lions by my lovely brother for Christmas (following a sisterly nudge in the right direction) and it proved to be the perfect festive read, as the novel’s action begins on 24th December and ends on New Year’s Eve. The evocative cover, with its snowy Finnish birches, also made the novel an attractive winter gift.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I’m a firm fan of of the Kimmo Joentaa series, which, intriguingly, is set in Finland but is authored by a German whose wife is Finnish. The novels are suffused with nordic melancholia, and are in large measure a study of grief, as the first novel, Ice Moon, opens with the death of Detective Joentaa’s young wife. Thus, while each book contains a discrete police investigation, collectively they trace the arc of Joentaa’s grief and the slow process by which he comes to terms with his loss. The Winter of the Lions, set around three years later, sees him embarking on a fragile and rather unconventional new relationship with a women he meets through his duties as a policeman.

One of the big strengths of the series is its focus on the characters within the police team, in a way that’s reminiscent of Scandinavian writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Mankell. Joentaa isn’t the only team member with problems, and there are some very human depictions of individuals trying to juggle the demands of their professional lives with the stresses and strains of life beyond the office. In this novel, however, the team also has to deal with the collective trauma of one of their own being murdered. Forensic pathologist Patrik Laukkanen is found dead on a snowy cross-country ski trail in the forest, the victim of a frenzied knife attack. Soon afterwards, another man is found stabbed, and when the link between the two victims is established it proves to be a strange one: both were guests on the popular Hamalainen talk show. As the front cover tantalisingly points out, ‘careless talk costs lives’…

As in previous Joentaa novels, sections of the narrative are written from the murderer’s point of view, and we gradually build up a picture of their character and the circumstances that have led them to commit their crimes. The murderer in The Winter of the Lions is portrayed with sensitivity and a degree of sympathy, although the consequences of his/her crimes for the families of the victims are also carefully spelled out. Here, again, trauma and grief are key themes, and as in Ice Moon, there are some intriguing similarities between the murderer and the investigator whose job it is to track him/her down.

I enjoyed The Winter of the Lions almost as much as the previous two Joentaa novels (although I missed the presence of Ketola, Joentaa’s former boss), and will certainly be back for more. At the end of this third book, I realise that the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.

For other Mrs P. posts on the Joentaa series see Ice Moon and Silence.

The first few chapters are available via the Random House website.

Incidentally, Silence was made into a German film in 2010 (entitled Das letzte Schweigen [the final silence]. You can see the trailer here, which looks great and makes wonderful use of the Finnish *summer* landscape (for a change). It’s in German, but don’t let that put you off!

Mrs Peabody awards The Winter of the Lions a snow and vodka fuelled 4 stars.

Creative Commons License

#14 Christian von Ditfurth / A Paragon of Virtue

Christian von Ditfurth, A Paragon of Virtue (Mann ohne Makel), translated from the German by Helen Atkins (London: The Toby Press 2008 [2002]). An intriguing crime novel which sees historian turn detective to help solve a murder with links to the Nazi past  4 stars

A Paragon of Virtue

Opening sentence:  The pain shot into his left knee.

Christian von Ditfurth is a German historian turned crime writer, whose debut novel, A Paragon of Virtue, was a best-seller in Germany and forms the first of the successful ‘Stachelmann series’ (currently six novels).

Part police procedural and part PI mystery, the novel divides its investigative duties between Ossi Winter, a detective with the Hamburg police, and his old friend Josef Maria Stachelmann, a historian at Hamburg University whose area of expertise is the Third Reich. It’s ultimately Stachelmann’s archival research that will prove decisive in solving the murders of a property dealer’s wife and two children, whose deaths have taken place at yearly intervals since 1999 – he’s both a detective of history, piecing together a forgotten past through archival clues, and a detective who uses those clues to solve a present-day crime. In the process, Stachelmann becomes the historical guide of a post-war Hamburg police force with scant knowledge of its Nazi past. As he educates Ossi and his colleagues about police complicity in Jewish deportations and the seizure of Jewish assets, the reader is given a sobering insight into the criminal activities of the Nazi state.

This is a highly interesting novel, set at the turn of the new millennium when a reunited Germany was (once again) examining its relation to the Nazi past. Stachelmann’s position on this issue is made very clear: we’re told he’s the author of a study entitled Forgetting and Repressing, which is critical of post-war Germany’s lack of engagement with National Socialist history. Unsurprisingly, the big theme of the novel is justice for the crimes of the past, and it’s one that’s problematised throughout the narrative: what form should post-war justice take; to what extent, if at all, has justice been done in the decades since the war; can any form of justice ever truly be considered adequate? These questions are most fully explored in the sections told from the murderer’s perspective: to a significant degree, the novel evolves into a ‘whydunit’, with the murderer’s motivation increasingly at the forefront of the narrative.

The narrative zips along at a good pace and deploys its two contrasting detective figures well. My only reservation is the characterisation of Stachelmann, who was rather irritating at times: his regular bouts of self-pity and neurotic tendencies are rather overplayed, and would have benefited from some judicious editing. On the other hand, the author’s integration of complex historical material into the crime narrative deserves praise: the information given about the operations of the Nazi state is illuminating but never feels too much like a history lesson.

I’m very interested by the fact that von Ditfurth, as a historian, has chosen to disseminate information about the Nazi era in his capacity as crime author. It would be easy to be cynical and suspect purely monetary motives (it’s still very much the case that ‘Nazis sell’), but I do think that such writers also have a genuine educative aim, and see the crime narrative as an ideal vehicle for the discussion of the criminal activities of the Nazi regime or other repressive states (Tim Rob Smith’s Child 44 also springs to mind here). The original German novel has been reprinted seventeen times, and will therefore almost certainly have had more readers than academic studies on the period, which are far less accessible (in both senses of the word) than popular fiction.

The translation into English was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut, which suggests that the text is seen as having historical and cultural value. The author’s website (in German) is available here. A short excerpt in English is available here.

Two other Stachelmann novels engage with the legacy of the German past, but have yet to be translated into English. They are Lüge eines Lebens (Lifelong Lie, 2008) and Labyrinth des Zorns (Labyrinth of Rage, 2009), the fourth and fifth novels in the series.

Mrs. Peabody awards A Paragon of Virtue a slightly wobbly, but very interesting 4 stars.

Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge / Ingrid Noll

Over at Barbara Fister’s blog, you can find details of the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge, which celebrates 25 years of Sisters in Crime and the wealth of quality crime fiction written by women. 

I’m embarking on the Easy challenge: write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.

My choice is The Pharmacist (Die Apothekerin), by one of Germany’s most successful and respected crime novelists, Ingrid Noll.

Ingrid Noll is in now her seventies, and only started writing seriously in her mid-fifties, after her three children had left home. The delayed start to her career as an author -perhaps not too unusual for a woman of her generation – gives all of us late developers hope and is one of the reasons I’ve selected her for this challenge.

I’ve also chosen Noll because (as she herself says), her novels are predominantly concerned with the lives of ordinary women, and how they set about achieving their goals within the constraints of a patriarchal, bourgeois society … by fair means or foul. She’s the writer of darkly humorous and highly original crime novels, often compared to those of Patricia Highsmith, which offer an entertainingly twisted vision of female empowerment – part of the German subgenre known as the Täterinnenkrimi (female perpetrator crime novel). At the same time her depictions of relationships avoid gender stereotyping: both her male and female characters are complex and interestingly flawed, which allows you to sympathise with them and despair of them all at the same time.

Poster for the 1997 film adaptation of Die Apothekerin/The Pharmacist

The Pharmacist, first published in 1994, is narrated in the first person by Hella Moormann. She is the pharmacist of the title, currently a hospital patient, who during the dull evening hours relates her life-story to Rosemarie Hirte, a mousy woman who keeps falling asleep in the next-door bed. We hear how Hella’s penchant for shady characters and co-dependency leads her into a relationship with the younger, amoral Levin, and how before long, she is drawn into a series of dubious, not to mention criminal events. The big question is: just how passive is Hella? Is she a victim of her machiavellian boyfriend? Or is she actually much more in control of the situation than she would care to admit? And just how wise is she to tell her story to the seemingly innocent Frau Hirte, whose snores may not be all they seem?

Delicious stuff!

The Pharmacist, trans. from the German by Ian Mitchell (London: HarperCollins, 1999).

Five other women crime writers I would recommend:

Josephine Tay, author of The Daughter of Time – another ‘hospital mystery’ (UK)

Maj Sjowall, co-author of the Martin Beck series (Sweden)

Fred Vargas, author of the Adamsberg series (France)

Dominique Manotti, author of Affairs of State and a very different writer to Vargas (France)

P.D. James, the grand Dame of British crime writing (UK)

The case of the missing translation: Konop’s No Kaddish for Sylberstein

A fellow crime researcher and friend recently read a cracking little French crime novel called Pas de kaddish pour Sylberstein and recommended it to me as one I would enjoy. I duly trotted off to find the translation but came up against a sizeable problem: it’s not available in English.

The novel, by journalist Guy Konopnicky (aka ‘Konop’), was first published in France in 1994,  and went down extremely well with the critics at the time. It was also adapted for film as ‘K’ in 1997 – as I found out courtesy of the Swedish Film Database. And yet not a sniff of it in the UK or States.

However, I then discovered that the novel was available in a German translation entitled Kein Kaddisch fur Sylberstein (btb, 2004). This was a lucky break for me, as I read German a lot better than I do French, and so I was able to sample its delights after all.

Kein Kaddisch für Sylberstein.

This meandering little journey got me musing on the logic (or simply luck) that results in some texts being translated while others are not. There are a couple of good reasons I can think of that would explain why Sylberstein was translated into German. Firstly, some of it is set in Berlin and explores 20th century German history. Secondly, Germans have an insatiable appetite for both homegrown and international crime fiction (another crime researcher colleague of mine was telling me in all seriousness the other day that Swedish crime fiction sometimes appears in German before it has even been published back in Sweden). So there’s an extraordinarily huge market for crime in Germany, as this article on the Deutsche Welle website explains (in English :)).

Here in the UK, fewer translations make it through to the English-language dominated market, although there is of course a very healthy international crime fiction scene now, thanks to visionaries such as Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press – not to mention the good folk at Bitter Lemon Press and Arcadia.

It looks like my Konop novel slipped through the net, but perhaps (ahem) one of the above might be interested in picking up this little gem? Here’s a taster from the blurb on the inside cover of the German btb translation:

‘Paris, 20th district. Jewish antiques dealer Simon Sylberstein shoots and kills a German tourist, whom he recognises as his old tormentor. He then hands himself into the police and dies of natural causes shortly afterwards. But Police Inspector Samuel Benamou, originally from Algeria and also Jewish, can’t let go of the case: he travels to the newly reunified Berlin to continue the investigation himself. Once there, Benamou quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in Sylberstein and his story…’

All in all, I found No Kaddish for Sylberstein an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Darkly humorous and entertainingly over-the-top at times, it also succeeds in addressing the serious theme of post-war justice (and its lack) following the Second World War and the Holocaust. If you’re lucky enough to speak French or German, it’s available online for a reasonable price.

A bit of a treat: Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Belfast for a few days, and will pop my head round the door of the ‘States of Crime’ conference being held at Queen’s on Friday and Saturday. As its title suggests, the conference will be looking at representations of the state in crime fiction, and how it is shown negotiating issues such as criminality, policing, justice and civil rights. 

I’ve had a peek at the programme, and it’s stuffed with talks on international crime (Italian, French, German, Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, African, Spanish, British, Irish, American). Heaven! 

The icing on the cake is a round table with David Peace and Eoin McNamee. Peace is a bit of a literary god in my eyes: I think his Red Riding Quartet is one of the best things ever written – irrespective of genre – and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in discussion at the No Alibis Bookstore on Friday evening. 

#9 Jan Costin Wagner / Silence

Jan Costin Wagner, Silence, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Vintage 2011 [2007]). The second novel in the Kimmo Joentaa series. An absorbing police procedural and a sensitive portrayal of grief  5 stars


Opening sentence: The time came when they got into the little red car and drove away.

I wrote a short but enthusiastic post on Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon back in March. While German by nationality (and writing in German), Costin Wagner is an honorary Finn by marriage, and appears to have acquired the stylistic DNA of nordic crime in the process. His police detective Kimmo Joentaa convincingly goes about his business in and around the Finnish city of Turku, and little within the narrative hints at the fact that its author was actually born and brought up in Frankfurt, nearly 1500 kilometers to the south-west.

Silence is the second in the Kimmo Joentaa series. The first, Ice Moon, depicted the harrowing weeks following the death of Kimmo’s young wife Sanna, and his desperate attempts to manage his grief by throwing himself into police-work. Silence is set a year or so later, and continues the sensitive exploration of Kimmo’s grief, as well as other kinds of grief felt by those around him, such as the parents of those who have disappeared or been murdered, or the former work colleague trying to communicate with his gravely troubled child.

When I’ve read an outstanding first novel, I’m often a bit wary of reading the second in the series, in case it doesn’t live up to the high standards of its predecessor. But Silence does a fantastic job of picking up the threads of Ice Moon, while developing the characterisation of the investigative team and providing the reader with an aborbing new crime narrative. In particular, the developing relationship between Joentaa and his recently retired and rather curmudgeonly boss, Ketola, is very nicely handled.

The novel’s investigation centres on the sudden disappearance of a teenager on her way to volleyball practice. The girl’s bicycle is found in exactly the same spot where another girl was attacked and murdered thirty-three years earlier, raising the possibility of a belated copy-cat killing. The cold case, in particular, has haunted Ketola, who was involved in the original investigation at the beginning of his career, and who now employs some rather unorthodox methods in his attempts to uncover the truth. In common with Ice Moon, the narrative also shows events from the perspective of the perpetrator, allowing readers to gain insights into the circumstances of the crime that are denied even Joentaa and Ketola. By employing this dual narrative structure, the novel succeeds in both satisfying the reader and in providing a thoughtful, nuanced, and rather disturbing conclusion to the case.

The third novel in the series, The Winter of the Lions, has just been published in translation by Vintage.

Mrs. Peabody awards Silence a classy 5 stars.

Germany meets Finland: Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon

Things have (ahem) been somewhat biased towards Danish and Scandinavian crime fiction in the last few posts. So I’m trying to broaden my horizons by means of a German crime novel by Jan Costin Wagner. But wait…his wife’s Finnish and the book’s set in Finland? So much for weaning myself off Nordic crime.

First line: Kimmo Joentaa was alone with her when she went to sleep.

I hadn’t heard of Costin Wagner before, but really liked Ice Moon (Eismond), his second novel, which features the young Finnish policeman Kimmo Joentaa. The novel opens with the death of Joentaa’s wife after a long illness, and in many ways is a study of grief that happens to be woven into a murder investigation. Each of the victims has been smothered in their sleep, and Joentaa becomes fascinated by these ‘eerily tranquil’ killings, while trying to absorb the loss of his own wife.

The novel’s nicely written, with a characteristic Nordic feel, and the both the investigator and the murderer’s story are explored with sensitivity. The Independent on Sunday described the book as ‘intriguing and touching’, which is spot on. A lovely little read.

Ice Moon is published in translation by Vintage Books (2006), and you can read the first few chapters online here.