#23 / Harri Nykänen, Nights of Awe

Harri Nykänen, Nights of Awe, translated from the Finnish by Kristian London (London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2012 [2004]). The first in a new series featuring Finnish-Jewish police inspector Ariel Kafka 4 stars

Opening line: Men are born, they live, and they die.

Ariel Kafka, a detective in Helsinki’s Violent Crime Unit and one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland, is called to investigate the deaths of two Arabs in the Linnunlaulu area of the city. As the case unfolds over the Days of Awe, the ten days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, Kafka is faced with the unwelcome possibility that the crimes have a Jewish dimension, in the shape of Israeli / Mossad involvement.

The main strength of this Finnish crime novel for me was the wonderfully realised and very likeable investigative figure of Ariel Kafka. Nykänan succeeds in creating a rounded first-person narrator with a distinctive Finnish-Jewish voice (surely a first), which draws entertainingly on the wise-cracking archetype of the hard-boiled detective. The following quote illustrates how nicely these elements are blended together:

‘It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question [You’re Jewish and you’re a cop?]. People seemed to have a strong belief that Jews have some secret, Old Testament-based motive for not joining the police force. In reality there was only one reason: the lousy pay.’ 

Nykänen, a former crime journalist, uses the narrative to explore Kafka’s triple identity as Finn/Jew/cop, and the tensions generated when these different elements come into conflict with one another. We’re also given a strong sense of the Jewish community in Helsinki (there are around 1500 Jews currently living in Finland), and its efforts to uphold Jewish traditions. The novel reminded me a little of the Rabbi Small series in its descriptions of Jewish life and religious debates (such as the question of  whether women should be accepted as part of the minyan – the quorum necessary to allow public worship). There are also interesting reflections on the way that the legacy of the Holocaust has shaped individuals and families, and the difficulties that ‘diasporic’ Jews have taking a position in relation to the politics and actions of the Israeli state.

Intriguingly, as a Jewish Chronicle article by Jenni Frazer reveals, Nykänen is not himself Jewish, but carried out extensive research for the novel, including discussions with Dennis Paderstein, a Finnish-Jewish chief inspector in Helsinki. The author views the Finnish-Jewish community as being ‘very small, but important’, and in many ways the novel is a celebration of its continued existence.

Less successful, perhaps, is the novel’s rather convoluted plot, which lost me in a number of places as the body count rose, although it did make a kind of sense in the end. In spite of this weakness, I would gladly read others in the series. There are apparently three more (Ariel and the Spiderwoman, Behind God’s Back and Holy Ceremony), which have already been translated into German. Hopefully, more English translations will follow soon.

Mrs. Peabody awards Nights of Awe a slightly flawed but highly entertaining 4 stars.

See also my earlier post on an intriguing trio of Jewish detectives.

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