Getting That Blogging Groove Back (2)…Myers, Hirvonen, Tuomainen, Jonasson, and Sigurdardottir.

Right, eyes down and here we go again with the next instalment of my sorely neglected reviews. These are short, sweet, and to the point, as my propensity for rambling will return in the fullness of time, I’m sure…

 

First up one of my favourite deliciously dark authors, Benjamin Myers with These Darkening Days. Taking as his inspiration a real life crime case from the north of England, Myers once again lures us into the deepest disturbing psychological realms of his characters, delivering more than a few grim sucker punches along the way. A series of women become victims of a vicious assailant, plunging this close knit community into a miasma of suspicion and accusation.

I absolutely loved it. 

From the cynical world weariness of embittered reporter Roddy Mace, fighting off the temptation of the demon drink, to the reappearance of fastidious, OCD suffering detective James Brindle, and a cornucopia of dislikeable victims and suspects along the way, Myers (as in previous books) draws us in, shakes us up, and then spits us out the other end slightly soiled by our reading experience, but guiltily satisfied by it too. As always the book is suffused by Myers strange mix of sometimes lyrical, oftentimes unerringly brutal imagery of the natural environment against which his characters roil, fight, and will to survive.

Perfection. 

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Next we go the quirky, dry-humoured latest offering from Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen in the shape of The Man Who Died, a marked diversion in style from the intensely emotive, and lyrically profound psychological novels that we normally associate him with. Other reviewers have drawn comparison with Fargo, but I was strongly propelled back in time to the devilish Tales of The Unexpected by Roald Dahl, coupled with the brilliantly black humour of one of my favourite books ever, ever, Beyond The Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Tuomainen’s unlikely protagonist, Jaako Kaunismaa takes us on a surreal journey in rural Finland of tracking down his murderer whilst fighting the clutches of death by poisoning, to the sheer cutthroat mentality of competing mushroom harvesting businesses, instances of potential death by samurai sword, and exceptionally scheming women.

It’s all a bit mad, but in a good way, and with Tuomainen’s natural propensity to draw his reader into his exploration of the essence of humanity, just from a slightly different angle, his lightness of touch, and manipulation of absurdity work a treat. Who could possibly know that the world of mushroom growing was such a hotbed of evil intentions? Highly recommended. 

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Staying with Finland, I can confidently say that When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen is champing for a place in my top five of the year. I was absolutely mesmerised by the pure intensity and sensitivity of one family’s turmoil in the wake of a mass shooting. With shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Hirvonen meticulously and stealthily portrays the increasing emotional dislocation of a family, over a period of time, to the devastating effects of this inability for them to communicate and connect on an emotional level.

Hirvonen broadens the sweep of the book even further with incisive comment on global human crises, and the ravaging of the environment which really engaged me and enraged me, but was wonderfully unflinching and truthful in its depiction. I am already recommending this left, right and centre, thrilled by its power as both a clear sighted narrative of familial breakdown, but also of the larger issues it encompasses in a comparatively condensed read.

Superb.   

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We’ll go for an Icelandic head-to-head now with Ragnar Jonasson- Whiteout and Lilja Sigurdardottir- Snare, the former being a continuation of the very successful series featuring policeman Ari Thor, and the latter the starting point of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy.

Ragnar Jonasson’s quality as a crime writer need no further commendation from me, but truthfully, I would say that this has been my favourite of the series to date. I found the writing wonderfully understated, and the whole book exuded an air of English Gothic fiction, with women hurling themselves from cliffs, and the sinister backdrop of the all-seeing lighthouse, compounded by the revelations of very dark pernicious behaviour indeed. I found it tense, involving, and as usual there was a great harmony between the intensity of the criminal investigation itself, and the playing out of Ari’s domestic situation, and his eagerness to progress in his police career.   

Snare proved a curious mix for me, as my overriding feeling that this was almost two books running parallel to each other, with a gripping story of drug running, running alongside a slower Borgen-esque feeling of financial impropriety, and double dealing. I’ll be honest, and say that I didn’t take to the latter thread as much as the former, finding it a little turgid against the relative excitement of the drug smuggling narrative, and although I was slightly questioning of the veracity of single parent Sonja’s involvement in drug running, this was certainly the more compelling of the two storylines, and led to some real heart in the mouth moments. I also enjoyed playing witness to the touchingly sentimental ‘other’ life of customs officer Bragi, whose game of cat and mouse with Sonja was another enjoyable strand of the book. However, the emotional handwringing of Sonja’s romantic involvement with Agla, the bank executive under investigation, became increasingly tiresome, but cleverly the seemingly anodyne ending of the book must signpost further developments for the second part of the trilogy. A little unsure, but curious, and intrigued to see how the story progresses in the next instalment.  

 

(With thanks to Moth Publishing for These Darkening Days, Bonnier Zaffre for When Time Runs Out, and Orenda Books for The Man Who Died, Whiteout and Snare

 

#BlogTour- The Finnish Invasion- Kati Hiekkapelto- The Exiled, Antti Tuomainen- The Mine

41mxo4kt01l-_sx322_bo1204203200_Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

Having waxed lyrical about the previous book The Defenceless from edgy Finnish writer, Kati Hiekkapelto, it was great to dive into this one, again featuring Hungarian detective Anna Fekete. I am rather partial to books where the main protagonist is removed from their normal stomping ground, and how the vacations they take are never the most relaxing of affairs. The Exiled fits the bill perfectly…

Anna Fekete is a prickly and forthright woman, with a somewhat abrasive manner that exasperates and delights in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed the verbal sparring between herself and her mother, on her trip back to her parental home, and Anna’s general doggedness and interference in the gradually revealed corruption within the local police force. She proves herself a keen and formidable irritant to most people, and Heikkapelto pulls no punches in painting a vivid picture of Anna’s somewhat derisory attitude to both childhood acquaintances and local figures in the community. Finding herself inveigled in the suspicious death of a petty thief soon after her arrival, Anna uses her detective nous, and the resources open to her, calling on assistance back home in Finland, to expose a dark and bleak tale centring on the refugee community.

Through her eyes, the neglect and danger that those traversing Europe in search of a safer home experience is brought to the centre of our attention, and her generally sympathetic view to those she encounters, coloured by her own identity as a migrant, works as a powerful conduit for Hiekkapelto to provide a broad and realistic depiction of the refugee crisis. There are also additional points of interest, as the chequered history of the Balkan region is woven into the plot, and a focus on the issues of identity and belonging that have arisen from the break up of Yugoslavia are explored both through Anna’s familial history, and those she interacts with. It’s always incredibly satisfying to read a book that provides deeper levels of interest alongside the main plot, and gives a richness and texture to the prose to sate the reader. With this added scope to the book, the main plot still stands strongly within it, and the investigation that Anna undertakes to satisfy the numerous questions that arise for her is well-realised and played out, and their is an underlying current of tension throughout. As Anna finds herself increasingly at risk, but being as determined as a dog with a bone, I was totally caught up in this story from the start, and pulled in once again by the magnetism of Anna’s character, and her unerring ability to use the less attractive traits of her personality to get to the root of this mystery. Beautifully translated by David Hackston,  The Exiled is another winner from Kati Hiekkappelto and I, for one, cannot wait to see what Anna gets tangled up in next. Highly recommended.

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mineIn the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company’s executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne’s personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life…

I’m going to set my stall out here and say that I would probably enjoy anything that Antti Tuomainen writes, having loved both The Healer, and  Dark As My Heart so did The Mine take me down to the depths of despair, or eject me skipping into the sunlight?…

One of the manifold reasons that I love Scandinavian crime thrillers so much is the unerring ability of the authors within this genre to so finely balance the exploration of the human psyche, and important social and political issues, in total harmony with the essential need of bringing to their readers a believable and compelling criminal mystery. The Mine is a perfect example of this, exposing the less than legal activities of a mining company in the snowy wastes of rural Finland, as a jumping off point for a menacing tale of murder and retribution. The author’s research into the history and workings of this particular industry across Finland, is clearly in evidence, and Tuomainen does not hesitate in exposing the particular follies and dangers linked to it. In common with Gunnar Staalesen’s We Shall Inherit The Wind and the Danish drama Follow The Money which also addressed issues in relation to environmental issues this adds a layer of interest to the reader, outside of a linear crime narrative. I thought the plot was excellent, and was genuinely interested and engaged with Janne’s refusal to give up in his mission to expose the truth behind the mining corporation and its dastardly deeds, and delighted by the additional weight that Tuomainen’s exploration of human connection brings to the whole affair.

Dark As My Heart was one of my favourite books of last year, due to the mesmeric, lyrical quality that Tuomainen injects into his prose. Despite the weightier environmental issues of this book, that provide the driving force for the story, there are interludes of writing, that resonate strongly with the author’s gift for the rhythm and cadence of emotional expression. I finished reading the book with at least ten highlighted passages of sublime, naturalistic description whether referring to the physical landscape, or the emotional landscape of the characters. I found Tuomainen’s portrayal of the fragile reconciliation between Janne and his father, Emil,  particularly affecting, and the bridging of the gap between their differing sense of morality powerfully wrought, when the true nature and motivations of Janne’s father come to light. Although not entirely convinced by Emil’s day job, it proved an interesting juxtaposition for us to see how Janne and his mother dealt with his absence, and the tentative steps made by Emil to reconnect. Strongly in evidence in his previous books is Tuomainen’s knack for rootling around in the depths of people’s emotional selves, and depicting them so transparently that you cannot be helped as a reader to being utterly drawn into his characters. I felt like I came to know all these people intimately as the story progressed, with increasing amounts of either complete empathy or moral outrage at the situations they find themselves in. This is fiction writing at its best, highlighting the power to move, unsettle and educate the reader, and hold them completely into its thrall. Highly recommended.

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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)

Blog Tour- Kati Hiekkapelto- The Defenceless

katiWhen an old man is found dead on the road – seemingly run over by a Hungarian au pair – police investigator Anna Fekete is certain that there is more to the incident than meets the eye. As she begins to unravel an increasingly complicated case, she’s led on a deady trail where illegal immigration, drugs and ultimately murder threaten not only her beliefs, but her life. Anna’s partner Esko is entrenched in a similarly dangerous investigation. As the two cases come together, it becomes clear that having the law on their side may not be enough…

The first thing to say is that if The Defenceless is your maiden voyage into the world of detective Anna Fekete, Kati Hiekkapelto references just enough details from the The Hummingbird– the first in the series- to get you up to speed, and not too much that it would deter you from picking it up. Indeed, I was only a few pages into this one when the thought suddenly occurred as to why I had not read Hiekkapelto before- note to self to buy and read The Hummingbird as well. From the outset this book ticks so many of the boxes that Scandinavian crime fiction lovers look for in their favourite crime sub-genre and here’s why…

The real stand-out feature of this book is the strength and balance of Hiekkapelto’s plotting, as the narrative pivots between the seemingly disparate plots of two missing elderly people, a dead drug dealer, the insidious rise of motorcycle gang culture, and the truly heart-rending tale of a young man trying to survive the inhospitable climate, both social and meteorological, as an illegal immigrant in Finland. It is a testament to the assured and wholly convincing writing style of Hiekkapelto that all of these contrasting sub-plots are so beautifully balanced, as in the hands of a lesser writer the links between them may not have been so authentically achieved. Consequently, Hiekkapelto also perfectly times some unexpected reveals, with at least two of these criminal cases being solved very late on in the book, having already put her readers through the emotional ringer of the initial investigations. In true Scandinavian style, and very reminiscent of the brilliant Swedish duo Roslund-Hellstrom, Hiekkapelto also unflinchingly turns her gaze on the socio-economic climate of Finland, particularly in relation to the story of Sammy, the young illegal immigrant, and the traumatic events that have brought him to Europe. This arc of the story powerfully evolves over the course of the book, and as Sammy becomes more deeply mired in the criminal investigation, Hiekkapelto subtly shapes our perception of him, and the uncertain future he faces. Likewise, Hiekkapelto presents for our dubious pleasure a damning indictment on the gang and drug culture that seeks to ensnare and overpower not only impressionable youths, but their insidious effect on respectable members of the community who come into contact with them. It’s a fairly bleak vision of modern society but unerringly truthful.

And so to Hiekkapelto’s central character, Anna Fekete, who combines the elements of silk and steel in equal measure. A focused, highly professional police officer, and meticulous in her approach to the cases she faces, with a sharp and naturally inquisitive mind. Being an outsider herself, due to her Hungarian background, she has a natural affinity to those on the outer reaches of Finnish society, and thus a fairer view of the immigration issues. She’s fairly well-respected, and for the most part enjoys a comfortable relationship with her colleagues, but in true crime fiction style she has two Achilles heels. One is her irresponsible, alcoholic brother Akos, and the other, her exceptionally misguided choices of romantic entanglements, which leads to much self-recrimination and sleepless nights. For the most part, I didn’t particularly feel the need for the latter, as her life experience as a non-native Finn, her relationship with her brother, and the very nature of her profession, provided more than enough points of interest. But I concede it is always nice to poke at useless men with a sharp stick. Talking of useless men, I must mention my favourite character, detective Esko Niemi, who on paper is one of the most objectionable, casually racist and misogynistic characters ever to grace crime fiction- I loved him. With each foolhardy pronouncement, cutting comment or insensitive reaction, he endeared himself to me even more, exposing his charmless self, and blinkered idiocy at every turn. Except, more importantly, when it really matters- when he has to think on his feet to protect himself or his colleagues, or when certain chickens come home to roost and we see the man behind the mask of stupidity. Brilliantly done, and another stand-out feature of this gripping slice of Scandi-noir. Can thoroughly recommend this one.

(With thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the ARC)

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