Written by Jarkko Sipilä, translated by Peter Ylitalo Leppa — In the past ten years, the overwhelming success of Scandinavian crime fiction has seen Sweden, Denmark and Norway lead the way. Yet Finnish noir is still hard to come by, with just a few exceptions. Publisher Ice Cold Crime aims to rectify this deficit by translating the Helsinki Homicide series by Jarkko Sipilä.
Fans of Scandinavian detective figures like Harry Hole and Inspector Sejer are used to series being translated out of order, and Helsinki Homicide is no exception. Nothing But the Truth is sixth in a 12-book series of which only four have been translated into English, but it’s as good a place as any to start.
When a small-time drug dealer named Tomi is murdered, the Violent Crimes Unit is dispatched to investigate, and they easily locate the perpetrator. Esa Nyberg is a psychotic militant with a Rambo complex who confesses and even savours the details of the kill from his cell bunk. A witness called Mari Lehtonen comes forward who decides, after much soul-searching, to testify. With her photographic memory, it seems like an open and shut case. However, when Mari identifies Risto Korpi, Helsinki’s high-ranking crime boss, as the driver of the getaway car, this new evidence points to a larger game. Why would the crime kingpin let himself be caught up in such a compromising position?
The murder victim’s father, Salmela, himself a career criminal, also happens to be an underworld informant for the Violent Crimes Unit. His connection is the VCU’s undercover man Suhonen, who is a childhood friend and remains so even though the criminal and the cop’s paths diverged dramatically. Suhonen treads lightly to extract information from the grieving father and learns that Nyberg is Risto’s godson. After questioning Risto, the homicide unit learns nothing new from the methodical criminal. Risto is a master of manipulation who survives by leaving no traces of his activities, and denies any knowledge of Nyberg’s murder plan. While the homicide squad considers whether this was a right of passage killing, and seeks warrants for tapping and surveillance, other developments distract their attention.
After repeated threats are made against their chief witness, Mari, and her daughter, the squad decides to place them in a witness protection program. The threats are obviously the work of Risto, who follows an unknown agenda. Mari wants a normal life, though, and goes home and back to work, much to the chagrin of the homicide unit, which struggles to protect her. A determined reporter smelling an exclusive latches onto Mari and the issue of citizens’ freedoms and the police’s strong-arm tactics. Amid pressures from the press, the public, and the top brass, PR maneuvering brings about an ironic outcome where the authorities arrange a confrontation between Mari and Risto. In the startling conclusion, we glimpse the true motivations of some key characters simultaneously.
Like some of its Scandinavian contemporaries, this procedural is unhurried and deliberate, dark and violent. But what is unique and refreshing about this series, or at least this installment, is that there doesn’t seem to be a main police character in the forefront. Several members of the homicide team – especially Takamäki, Joutsamo, and Suhonen – are given equal dramatic weight and there is no flawed but brilliant detective figure who overshadows the others. If anything, the main character here seems to be the witness Mari, whose personal struggle to maintain a normal existence becomes the main driver of the story.
First time readers of this series will find no recap from previous books nor an establishment of the characters for the homicide unit. However, a cast of characters in the front of the book at least mitigates the confusing Finnish names. The story of the murder and its investigation hits the ground running and we get to know the characters along the way. The lack of proper introductions may be an issue for some readers at first, but overall the thoughtful pace of the investigation and wry humor of the team will win over many more. The realistic procedural details of police investigation, an in-depth treatment of policy issues usually glossed over in crime fiction, and appealingly portrayed cop camaraderie have us looking for more from this series on the horizon of Finnish noir in translation.
Ice Cold Crime
CFL Rating: 3 Stars