Lucifer's Tears is the second in James Thompson's Inspector Kari Vaara series of novels set in Finland, and offers a signficant change of scene from the acclaimed Snow Angels (Material Witness review) as the policeman has moved south to Helsinki from the Arctic Circle.
Although he has swapped the tundra for the city, Thompson continues to explore the themes that made Snow Angels so interesting: the Finns and Finland - both still relatively unknown quantities even to their European neighbours, never mind the rest of the world.
In my review of Snow Angels, I noted that Thompson had shown a degree of bravery in exploring themes that his adopted countrymen can be somewhat defensive about: violence and alcoholism. Both of these are in evidence in Lucifer's Tears, but here he goes even further into controversial, sensitive territory, exploring Finland's role in WWII and in particular its involvement with the Nazis.
Vaara is thrust into this historical minefield when a superior asks him to investigate the possible participation in war-time crimes on Finnish soil of an elderly Finnish war hero whom Germany is asking the government to extradite. Vaara is expected to cover up any incident but when he realises his grandfather might also be implicated in any crime he is compelled to follow through with his investigation, exploring a nation's darkest secrets.
In parallel, the detective also investigates the sexually related murder of the wife of a high profile Russian businessman. Vaara, and his new partner Milo, an abrasive young cop with a high IQ and similarly inflated view of his own talents, quickly recognise an elaborate set-up and focus on the businessman as their prime suspect. This is turn drags them into the political sphere.
As you can probably tell, there's a lot going on in Lucifer's Tears, and that's before you get to Vaara's personal life. He is suffering a debilitating series of headaches that increasingly impinge on his ability to function. His American wife Kate, who manages Helsinki's top hotel, The Kamp, is pregnant and her siblings, John and Mary, visit from the US, apparently to help Kate after the birth. Thompson uses this device to explore further Finnish society and norms and some of the books most entertaining passages comes as Vaara either explains (or often defends) Finnish culture and norms to his in-laws.
Lucifer's Tears is a fast-paced, almost breathless novel that never lets up. But while the narrative draws together a number of story strands, it never feels too much and Thompson remains firmly in control throughout, skilfully engineering the plot towards its exciting climax.
The Finnish history and social lessons are not obtrusive but will likely not be for everyone. But this is a very interesting and overlooked corner of Europe, one with a remarkable story and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But crimes series typically stand or fall on the strength of the lead character, and this is where Thompson wins handsomely. Kari Vaara is complex without being a cliche and sufficiently Finnish to be intriguing. He is also decent, fair-minded and rational - and carries the story.
Thompson is now building a terrific series, and I am already very much looking forward to seeing the promised next installment, True Finns.