The Hummingbird

hummingbirdWritten by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated by David Hackston — Although Finland is often grouped with Scandinavia, its population, language and sensibility are all quite different. That holds true of its crime fiction as well. There is something unnerving and mysterious about the taciturn Finnish detectives, some of whom we’ve featured previously on this website.

Anna Fekete is the latest to issue forth from the pen of a Finnish writer, who we can now read about in English. Anna is not Finnish by birth. She found refuge in the country as a child fleeing from the wars in Yugoslavia and has still not quite adapted to the cold, dark winters. Furthermore, she was an outsider even back in her homeland as part of the Hungarian minority in Serbia. Her brother never fully integrated into Finnish society, while her mother returned home as soon as she could. So it’s no wonder that Anna’s sense of belonging is somewhat confused. Her loyalty to law and order is never in doubt, however, and it’s this belief in justice and compassion for suffering which make this young heroine so appealing.

She is just starting out in non-uniformed police work in an unspecified coastal town in Northern Finland. So she is very much made to feel like the new girl on the block, especially when her first serious case involves a serial killer who seems to be randomly shooting joggers on isolated running tracks. Being a runner herself, Anna becomes very involved in the case, even though she starts receiving threatening text messages. Her colleagues try to be welcoming but are not always very tactful, while her middle-aged male partner Esko seems to be both sexist and racist, deliberately sabotaging her efforts. Yet there are hints that there may be hidden depths to this infuriating character too.

In addition to the murder investigation, Anna is also keeping a close watch on a Kurdish family who may or may not be forcing their teenage daughter into a marriage. Is she merely showing great empathy or is she making assumptions about the traditions of Kurdish immigrants? Maybe she is guilty of stereotyping them the same way she is stereotyped at work?

This book is very much a police procedural, focusing on the painstaking investigation undertaken by the team, the questioning of witnesses, the tenuous links and false starts they encounter. Frustratingly, Anna and her colleagues sometimes miss vital clues, and The Hummingbird signature element only appears quite late in the book. Perhaps this is realistic. In real investigations, the police do not notice all the details and instantly come up with elaborate theories about the perpetrators. Certainly the time frames seem far more true to life than in most crime fiction: this is not a story that is wrapped up in a few days or a few weeks. Instead, we note the change of seasons, from late summer warmth to autumn foliage to the grey-slivered sleet of November.

This is also a book which is unafraid to tackle social issues such as immigration and drug culture in contemporary Finnish society. Sometimes, however, it feels too much like a lecture delivered about The Immigrant Experience 101, for Finns who have not had much contact with foreigners. Like many a debut author, Hiekkapelto tries to cram in too many story lines and too much information. There is no need for her to over-plot her books, because she has a wonderful natural style and narrative flow, as well as a talent for creating memorable, intriguing characters. I will look forward to Anna’s further adventures and the blossoming of her relationship with her colleagues.

Arcadia Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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  1. Susanna Reply

    As a Finn it was interesting to find this review! It’s not very often that you can find Finnish books reviewed in the blogs.I read the book a couple of years ago and also the sequel which came out in Finnish about a year ago. I think Esko is a bit of an exaggeration, I don’t think that we Finns are that unaccustomed to immigrants. The sequel was better that the first book, I hope it’ll be translated into English as well.

    1. MarinaSofia Reply

      That was exactly my impression: that the ‘ignorance’ about immigrants is exaggerated. I’m sure that the integration process is not perfect (as it isn’t in pretty much any country in the world), but it all felt a little bit didactic.

    2. Karen Sullivan Reply

      It’s worth noting that Kati works with immigrants in Finland and was married to a Serbian Hungarian, so I suspect that what she portrays can be accurate. The good news is that The Defenceless will be published in English next year by Orenda Books! It was only published in Finland this Autumn. Pleased you enjoyed it even more than The Hummingbird!

  2. Dashel Hammett Reply

    The translator (David Hackston) makes some peculiar word choices in this book. They are not in character with the protagonist, the genre, or at points technically correct. A translator more attuned to the lingo of noir, mysteries would have benefited this book.

    For example, early in the story Anna Fekete refers to her own ass as her bottom. I can’t envision her inner dialog being so juvenile. The description of a murder is made confusing by the use of the word rifle. The murder weapon is typically used for duck hunting. Ducks are not hunted with a rifle. The murder weapon is a shotgun. Also, shotguns ‘shoot’ pellets or shot not bullets as found in the text. Another example is Anna’s use of the expression bloke-to-bloke. I feel certain it was originally man-to-man. Which is also the common usage in the UK.

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