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helsinki noir

2 october 2021

Possibly because Finland is, as editor James Thompson puts it, "the best place in the world to live" (11), the stories in his collection Helsinki Noir tend toward ghastly amoral violence: torture, vicious assault and battery, rape: all served up with nihilistic unconcern for the lives and well-being of one's fellows. I am not a newcomer to the 21st-century crime story and I don't think I'm among its more squeamish readers, but I couldn't get through quite a few of these stories. I will make some notes here on the ones I could.

The best-known Finnish mystery writer, as Thompson notes, is Leena Lehtolainen, with many translated works. I have read Lehtolainen's novel My First Murder, but didn't write about it here. Lehtolainen's heavily expository style, where every detail is explained, may work better at the scale of the short story than at novel length. "Kiss of Santa," her contribution here, is a well-wrought tale with an intriguing, gender-bending first-person narrator.

Another strong Christmas-themed story is Jarkko Sipila's "Silent Night," which mixes sentiment and absurd violence. (Sipila has also had several in a series of police novels translated into English.) "Silent Night" is a procedural set on Christmas Eve, and presents a detail you don't often see at procedural murder scenes:

The one technical team on duty was at the scene of a computer store break-in, which would take them at least an hour, judging by the report. (137)
A small item, but every other fictional forensic investigation seems to involve the effortless appearance of hordes of technicians.

Like "Silent Night," Jukka Petäjä's "Snowy Sarcophagus" is a miniature involving a detective from a novel series. "Snowy Sarcophagus" is a true whodunit, and though it's just 20 pages long, Petäjä might even have inserted a "challenge to the reader" after the 18th. I missed the clues, possibly because the genre is not common in short stories anymore.

Pekka Hiltunen's "Jenkem" is narrated by a man in his thirties who commands a gang of violent boys, ordering them to hurt random strangers. The title isn't Finnish; "Jenkem" refers to an urban-legend homemade intoxicant whose reality becomes an article of faith among the gang members.

The other more readable items in the collection are formulaic but well-turned. Joe Murr's "The Silent Woman," an English-language original, rings changes on the classic James M. Cain formula: to please girlfriend, bump off old guy with dough. Karo Hämäläinen, in "The Broker," offers another formula: the young crook who thinks he's going to make easy money by swindling an older crook, while forgetting the familiar saw about old age and treachery. Antti Tuomainen offers "The Script," a revenge tragedy boiled down to 16 pages.

Thompson, James, editor. Helsinki Noir. Brooklyn: Akashic, 2014.