Antti Tuomainen- Dark As My Heart

anttiAleksi lost his mother on a rainy October day when he was thirteen years old. Twenty years later, he is certain that he knows who’s responsible. Everything points to millionaire Henrik Saarinen. The police don’t agree. Aleksi has only one option: to get close to Henrik Saarinen and find out the truth about his mother’s fate on his own. But as Aleksi soon discovers, delving into Saarinen and his beautiful daughter’s family secrets is a confusing and dangerous enterprise…

I must confess that aside from Matti Joensuu and Kati Hiekkapelto my knowledge of Finnish crime fiction is a little underdeveloped, so was intrigued to discover a new-to me-writer in this sub-genre of the Scandinavian stable. So how did Dark As My Heart fare? Will I be seeking out Tuomainen’s The Healer as well?

If the fact that I read this book in one night can be testament to how much I enjoyed this one is any gauge, I think we can all safely say that this book was a real hit with me. Dark As My Heart, drew me in from the start with the mournful clarity and simplicity of its prose, and the underlying power of the emotion that Tuomainen expresses in deceptively understated prose. Discovering afterwards that Tuomainen is an established poet reinforced my initial impressions of the lyrical and sensual quality of both the dialogue and imagery that Tuomainen employs throughout. From the inherent appreciation of the natural world, to the intensity of expression that the author affords the gradual unveiling of Aleksi’s turbulent and emotional upbringing in the wake of the loss of his mother, the prose style that Tuomainen adopts is mesmerising. I rarely revisit passages of a crime book after reading, but did on this occasion mainly to marvel at the fluid and lyrical style of Tuomainen’s writing style, from the brevity (though no less affecting) use of dialogue, to particular descriptions of the setting of Saarinen’s rural estate. It was just so satisfying to see such a seamless blend of beautiful language, and well-structured plot working in harmony, which is something that European crime writers seem to excel at. What was also clever was how at times the book also assumed the feel of a stage play with many double-handed scenes that again added to the claustrophobic and emotionally intense feel of the book. Hence, what the reader encounters is a well-balanced blend of poetry, prose and drama which was exceptionally engaging from start to finish.

Aleksi is viewed throughout the book with an overriding compunction to uncover the truth behind his mother’s disappearance, fuelled by a long period of gestation formulating a plan to confront the man he believes responsible. In the case of his character, still waters run deep, with the face he displays to the world masking a deep inner life driven by revenge, and it’s fascinating how Tuomainen so beautifully reveals the dark details of Aleksi’s formative years. Equally accomplished is how Tuomainen sustains such a pitch of intigue and secrecy using a comparatively small cast of characters, and Aleksi’s interaction with them. He is a completely empathetic character, and I’m sure like many readers to come I was completely rooting for him throughout the book, in the face of the deception and manipulation at the hands of the Saarinens. In much the same way as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Steffen Jacobsen’s Trophy, Tuomainen uses the character of millionaire businessman Henrik Saarinen, as a foil for his detached authorial view of the impunity with which the rich and powerful ride roughshod over the normal laws of decent behaviour, and Saarinen is the epitomy of this, eemingly untouchable by established means. His daughter assumes the role of the femme fatale of the piece, using her feminine wiles and sensuality to influence and blindside Aleksi, with a particularly unsavoury reveal about her character along the way. The world that Aleksi has infiltrated is morally bankrupt and Tuomainen provides an intriguing study of the base motivations and jealousies that drive human behaviour.

I found Dark As My Heart one of the most compelling, emotionally satisfying and beautifully realised crime thrillers that I have encountered this year. The clarity and deceptively simple style of Tuomainen’s prose is utterly compelling, underlined by his assured use of more than one literary form, and yet with this clever manipulation and lyricism of the language and form of the book, Tuomainen never loses sight of keeping the reader engaged by the central mystery that drives the plot. Wonderful.

(With thanks to Vintage/Harvill Secker for the ARC)

Steffen Jacobsen- Trophy

steffAlready a bestseller in Europe, Trophy is the second of Jacobsen’s books to be released in the UK, following the excellent When The Dead Awaken With one of the most atmospheric and terrifying opening chapters I have ever read, Jacobsen delights in ramping up the tension, and exposing the grimmest aspects of the human character, amongst the most privileged class of society…

This is a tale of immorality, greed and violence that Scandinavian crime fans will savour, drawing as it does, in a similar style to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, on the less than savoury activities of a wealthy family, and its recently deceased patriarchal figure of Flemming Casperson. Casperson had built his business empire on technology crucial to military weapon systems, but is quickly revealed as financially rich but morally bankrupt with the discovery of a DVD implicating him in a macabre human manhunt for sport. His daughter, and potential heir to the family business-Sonartek- enlists the help of deep cover investigator Michael Sander, to discover her father’s role in this dark past-time, and as it happens its connection to the strange suicide of an ex-soldier, Kim Anderson, on his wedding day being investigated by feisty detective Lene Jensen. As Sander and Jensen’s paths cross in the course of their separate investigations, they find themselves embroiled in a sinister and violent conspiracy, and the exposure of some unsettling truths which threaten both their lives.

The characterisation throughout the book is absolutely superb, and Jacobsen’s central protagonists of Sander and Jensen, carry the book effortlessly throughout. Sander is a wonderful construct, with all the nous and cynicism of a traditional hardbitten private detective, operating below the radar of mainstream society and a difficult man to enlist for hire. He is singularly unimpressed by the wealth and power of the Caspersons, and of Casperson’s shady business partner, Victor Schmidt and his sons, Henrik and Jakob, but this a lucrative investigation and his moral integrity is at the fore in his decision to get to the heart of this dark and morally baseless crime. Jensen proves herself a wonderful foil to Sander throughout the book, with her sense of justice equally inflamed by the repercussions of his investigation, onto her own into the senseless suicide of Anderson and the unearthing of his connection to the Caspersons. It was heartening to read a thriller not based on any unbelievable sexual tensions between Sander and Jensen, and I loved the equal balance of power and tenacity afforded to both characters regardless of gender, and the personal moments of crisis that arise for them when their investigation reverberates into the lives of family and friends. Jacobsen also succeeds fully in his characterisation of the Caspersons and Schmidts, with their battle for supremacy and control in the Sonartek empire, fuelled by greed and a moral bankruptcy that was shocking but entirely believable.

The plotting was terrific throughout, and I loved the way that Jacobsen incorporated the military detail of the backgrounds of some of the protagonists, pivoting the location of the book between Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and Scandinavia. The relentless pace of Sander and Jensen’s striving for the truth, is interspersed with scenes that are shocking and violent, and consequently this was a book that could not be left alone for long. The denouement of the book is excellent and mirrors completely the shock value of the opening chapter, with a neat and entirely credible twist at the end as well. Another winner for me from Jacobsen, and a testament to the continuing rude health of the Scandinavian crime genre. Fully deserving of a trophy itself!

(With thanks to MidasPR/Quercus for the ARC)