Written by Antti Tuomainen, translated by Lola Rogers — This is the second novel Finnish author and poet Antti Tuomainen has seen translated into English. His first was the hauntingly ambiguous mystery The Healer, in which a man went searching for his missing wife in a near-future Helsinki on the verge of meltdown.
We gave that novel five stars back in 2013, so Dark As My Heart has been eagerly awaited here at Crime Fiction Lover HQ. And, let me tell you, this is book doesn’t disappoint. If you enjoyed Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow, Chris Ewan’s Dark Tides, or just about anything by Karin Fossum, here is a noir novel to savour. With a touch of Greek tragedy about it, and the author’s effortlessly poetic descriptions, it feels like literary fiction yet the murder mystery element is powerful enough to please any fan of our wonderful genre.
Aleksi Kivi is 33 years old and for two decades he’s wondered about what happened to his mother. She went out on a dinner date and never returned. Aleksi has been brought up in foster homes, done his military service, studied a bit, and now he’s a carpenter. He’s more or less even tempered, and doesn’t mind a day’s labour or working outside, even though this is Finland we’re talking about. He never knew his father, but all his inner pain relates to his mother.
The book opens with her brutal and bloody death, before shifting to September 2013 where this story really begins. Aleksi knows who killed his mother, and has landed a job as the handy man on Henrik Saarinen’s wooded estate, just outside Helsinki. He’s done his homework on Saarinen. The man has a history of violence against women, and the mutilated body of another woman he dated was found in the sea 10 years after Aleksi’s mother disappeared. Our hero and narrator has given up his life in the city and his lover in order to get close to Saarinen, find out what happened, and perhaps even take revenge.
Aleksi has exercised great control over his emotions and his need to know just to get this far, but soon he’s sleeping with Saarinen’s beautiful but spoiled daughter Amanda. That in itself could endanger his mission.
The author gives us an impressive and menacing antagonist in Saarinen. The man is big, light on his feet, subtle, secretive and grounded, despite his wealth. Confident and powerful, this villain is bothered by something and tainted very much by his hubris. Amanda Saarinen, the cook Enni, and the chauffeur Harmala, all seem peculiar and a touch nasty, each in their own way.
Then there’s the saintly side. Every so often, flashbacks take us the days before Aleksi’s mother disappeared. So many crime novels don’t give you much chance to sympathise with the victim. Here you’re not allowed to forget the hurt Aleksi has felt since his caring, attentive mother was taken away from him.
We also see Aleksi’s conversations with a retired detective called Ketomaa, who warns him off. Ketomaa worked on the case 20 years ago, and they’ve kept in touch, perhaps because Ketomaa pities Aleksi. The detective keeps telling him he’s barking up the wrong tree. Then, Aleksi finds one of his mother’s poetry books in Saarinen’s library and the story really heats up. As Aleksi circles Saarinen, could it be that the old man is actually reeling him in? Saarinen hires Ketomaa to do some PI work, which throws Aleksi, but not as much as the dramatic twists in the plot that follow in short order.
Lovers of Nordic noir will enjoy the Finnish setting, but it’s the poetic treatment of the moody ocean, grim foliage and autumn climate that make Dark As My Heart such a rich experience. Tuomainen doesn’t just tell us about a red sky at night. Instead, a character notices the red sunset reflected in the windows of the main house, just as he’s embarking on a journey that could lead to a bloody confrontation.
Not that this book is particularly violent. The tension comes more through weighing up whether or not Saarinen knows that Aleksi is onto him, but also the possibility that Aleksi is wrong, that other forces are involved, and that his obsession will send him straight into a trap. But you’ll have to read it to find out.
Dark, captivating and troubling, this beautifully written book tugs the heart strings and gives us a glimpse of the darkness within.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars