Finland has been notably under-represented in the surge of Nordic crime fiction that has take the genre by storm in recent years. While Icelanders, Swedes and Norwegians have risen to prominence few Finnish authors have broken into international markets.
This has been a personal disappointment to me. Having spent a lot of time in Finland, and grown to like it and the Finns very much, I have long been waiting for a writer to bring the country to life on the crime scene.
So it was with the greatest of pleasure that I discovered James Thompson and his debut novel Snow Angels, set in FInnish lapland during Kaamos, the bleak, black Polar midwinter during which the sun does not rise at all for several days.
It is a good starting place and time for a writer exploring Finland and taking it to a new audience. Light and heat are perhaps the two most dominant characteristics of the country to a newcomer: in the winter there is an alarming lack of both - even in southern parts such as Helsinki; in the summer there is a surfeit of the latter. It is impossible not to wonder what impact the long dark winters has on those living here.
Thompson, a long-term resident, sets his story up handsomely to examine this question and others about the Finns, and Snow Angels, which is essentially a terrific mystery novel, explores some of these themes primarily through the dynamic between the central character, police detective Kari Vaara, and his American wife Kate, who is enduring her first Finnish winter as a manager in the Arctic ski resort of Levi. Vaara sees the Finns as they see themselves, while Kate provides the outsiders view.
For someone interested in FInland, it is fascinating, at least in part because Thompson is brave: exploring attitudes to race, to alcohol, to depression. It is possible that some of his Finnish neighbours will not be pleased by his conclusions. What emerges is a community tense, volatile and downbeat. At temperatures touching minus 40 degrees Celsius, merely existing is difficult, while the lack of natural light throws a claustrophobic blanket over the small town.
To many, Finnish Lapland is associated with reindeer, husky-pulled sleigh rides and the dream of Santa Claus and Christmas. But in Snow Angels, the long night brings a nightmare not dreams. Vaara is called out to a field in a reindeer farm where a famous Somali film star is found brutally murdered in an attack that carries both racial and sexual overtones.
Vaara's small team embarks on a very public investigation that rapidly envelops a socialite and a well-known businessman and spreads quickly to touch Vaara's family and that of his ablest lieutenant.
The plot is strong, the characters three-dimensional and Thompson is clearly a great story-teller who writes with snap and wastes few words (perhaps that's the Finnish influence). Snow Angels has a very strong sense of place and depicts Finland and the Finns with accuracy and clear affection.
I would have enjoyed Snow Angels if it had been set in Norway or Denmark - it's a cracking mystery. I ejoyed it more because it was set in Finland. There is no reason why those readers who have flocked to other Nordic mystery writers who are enjoying such popularity now should not also enjoy this new Finnish twist.
I loved it, and I'm looking forward to the next installment already.
Snow Angels was published by Putnam in the US in January.