Written by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston — If you think you already know what to expect from an Antti Tuomainen crime novel, prepare to be surprised. We certainly thought we did, having reviewed him several times on our site. There’s his philosophical dystopia in The Healer, bleak tale of vengeance in Dark As My Heart and the frozen Nordic eco-thriller, The Mine. Although each of those novels is very different in subject matter, you can easily see ambiguous resolutions, a story with a dark core of tragedy and an effortlessly poetic yet spare style across his translated works so far..
You won’t find any of that in this dark comedy from Finland – not at first glance. But once you delve deeper beneath the surface of the farcical misunderstandings and lurid accidents in The Man Who Died, you will find the same deep loneliness and longing for a connection, which are recurring themes in all of Tuomainen’s work.
In the very first chapter we find out that the main protagonist, the easy-going mushroom entrepreneur Jaakko Kaunismaa, is doomed to die very soon. At just 37 years of age, his doctor tells him that someone has been poisoning him slowly but steadily over the past year. By rights, the amount of toxin he has imbibed should already have been enough to kill off a hippopotamus, but somehow his body had accrued them gradually and got used to them. With an unspecified but very short period left to live, Jaakko has only two things on his mind: to find out who has been trying to kill him, and… to cram as much forbidden food into his mouth without the fear of getting fat or developing diabetes.
Despite his placid demeanour, it appears that Jaakko has no shortage of enemies: his wife is cheating on him with one of their young employees; there is a new mushroom picking outfit in town run by thugs; and his Japanese clients are acting mysteriously, plotting behind Jaakko’s back. No action hero by any stretch of the imagination, Jaakko must learn to pull in his stomach muscles and coax his chubby frame through a series of exploits involving car chases, samurai swords and deadly attacks in Finnish saunas.
This is a delightful mad caper of a story, which will make readers snort out loud with laughter and would have made an excellent 1930s screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra. Yet there is a serious undercurrent too of ambition, betrayal and choosing your priorities in this all too brief life. In this respect, it is more reminiscent of the grim humour of early Coen Brothers films.
Jaakko himself is an endearing and memorable character, in spite of his naive mistakes and self-serving justifications. His homespun philosophy of life is given a resounding shock throughout the course of the book and he has to toughen up and embark upon an unusual course of action. Yet he does so with remarkable aplomb and dry wit, unflappable on the surface, regardless of how out of his depth he really feels. I’m sure I won’t be the only reader wanting to give him a resounding hug.
Congratulations to the author for embarking on such a departure from the usual Scandinavian crime fiction style, and hooray for publishers who encourage this. It is exciting to follow a favourite author into entirely new territory, while losing none of his crisp, clear prose.
This will appeal more to readers of Chris Brookmyre or Caimh McDonnell rather than those accustomed to the darker existentialist fare typical of Nordic noir. For more suggestions of authors who successfully blend crime and comedy, see this post.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars