Friday, 30 May 2014

Outi Pakkanen, Korttelin kuningatar (Helsinki: Otava, 2013)

Korttelin kuningatar - jännitysromaani
 Outi Pakkanen’s (1946-) first  crime novel  Murhan jälkeen mainoskatko (Ad Break After Murder)  came out in 1973 and since then she has published over twenty detective novels (among a handful of other works). Her latest Marius is out in June 2014. Korttelin kuningatar (The Queen of the Block), first published in 1995, is the seventh book with the character  Anna Laine, a freelance graphic designer, who pops up in all the later books as well. It is also the sixth outing of police inspector Matti Martikka.  Pakkanen has never given the police a big role in her stories, because, she is quoted saying, she does not know the world of the police well enough to write a police procedural. She has a background in advertising, many of her novels, Korttelin kuningatar and Marius included, feature media, celebrities and PR.
Helsinki, Lauttasaari neighbourhood particularly, has a big presence in her work. Her locations are accurate and real, the atmosphere has a local flavour.  Her characters speak the local slang with many expressions bastardized from Swedish, Russian and English (a challenge for any translator if Pakkanen gets picked up by an English-language publisher). In 2012 she was awarded the title of “Stadin Friidu” (a slang expression that roughly translates as “City Chick”) by Stadin Slangi, an association dedicated to promoting and studying the Helsinki slang. Pakkanen’s novels are very much portraits of Helsinki, down to the very words she uses. But despite being a “City Chick,” her Helsinki comes across as a village, so tightly are her stories controlled.
Pakkanen’s characters tend to shop at the local food hall and they eat very well. Pakkanen is also known for her interest in food, she published a cook book Porosta parmesaaniin. Anna Laineen keittokirja (Reindeer to Parmesan: Anna Laine’s Cook Book) in 2003.
The setting of Korttelin kuningatar  is very much a city block or two in Hietalahti of Helsinki and a single detached house in Lauttasaari. The gathering place for locals is the corner pub Mr. Pickwick, with a long existence previously under the name Poiju (p 21).
Korttelin kuningatar is a simple, cosy, crime story, with a clever idea at its heart. It also has a couple of severe shortcomings. Pakkanen has timed her story carefully, around the 28th of September, 1994. The novel opens on Friday 23rd of September, a day which fills the first third of the book.  The narrative then jumps to Tuesday, 27th of September and covers the next four days, concluding on Saturday 1st of October.
The sinking of MS Estonia on September 28, 1994 with the loss of 852 lives, on its way from Tallinn to Stockholm, would have been on the mind of anyone reading Korttelin kuningatar when it first came out. This was the worst maritime time disaster involving European passengers since The Titanic sank in 1912, and it took place at Finland’s doorstep, off the Turku archipelago. On the day, every one gathers at Mr Pickwick to follow the news . “Tämmöistä täällä oli viimeksi silloin kun Palme murhattiin.” (“It was like this here last when Palme was murdered.”) Mikko Virtanen observes (p139).
On this day, halfway through the book, we learn of the first death. We have to read even further, until Friday 30th of September, before we come across a crime (page 144 of 236 pages). This is the clever kernel idea in Korttelin kuningatar: despite the glaring lack of crime for much of the novel, it reads like a crime story. Pakkanen succeeds in this, because she manages to make the reader anticipate crime: you are waiting for someone to die; you are waiting for something awful to happen.  When it comes, it is not what you expect. Instead, you have to wait even longer, before it is time to all the police.
Only eleven characters have lines in the novel. The suspense is created from the relationships (past and present) of these characters: mother Meri  Lappi, two daughters Inari and Salla and granddaughter Vanessa, Inari’s ex-husband Stefan Sjöblom, his new wife Tiia, the wife’s brother Jari Ahokas  and, finally, the local photographer Mikko Virtanen, who has had dealings with the Lappi ladies. This is a viper’s nest of a family  with as much love, hatred  and jealousy squeezed in as possible. Money is the main object of desire and dispute throughout: Lappi’s family fortune, ex-husband’s business success, Inari and Meri’s attempts at come-back (in modelling, p61, and in singing, p101, respectively).  Attitude to money comes across as crude and over-egged. People are constantly making remarks about each others' wealth and their own lack of it (pp 40, 43, 63, 82, 90,140, 178, 185, 193, 211). Inari, Jari, Vanessa and Tiia are all depicted as mercenary: “Minähän olen nyt rikas!” (“I am rich now!”) Inari shouts after the crime in the book has finally taken place (p192). Money is established as the number one motivation (and motive?) in the story.
 Anna Laine and, later, Matti Martikka, observe the events from the sidelines.  Journalist Mari Muuronen, the last of the eleven characters, has a cameo. Anna Laine’s role in the story is slightly contrived and explicitly serves the dictates of the plot:  sometimes she eagerly seeks out the Lappi ladies (as when she pushes herself under Salla Lappi’s umbrella and insists on giving her a lift, pp32-33, or sticks her foot in the door and almost forces her way into Salla’s flat, p154), sometimes  she wants to have nothing to do with them (she turns away a lonely Meri Lappi, p75, and wants to run away from all the Lappis disgusted by Inari’s greed, p212). Despite Anna and Matti Martikka being old acquaintances, it is unlikely for a police officer to discuss a crime investigation quite so freely with an outsider, even if she does cook him a delicious meal (pp196-201).
 The narrative is an internal third person narrative: the perspective keeps shifting between characters even within single scenes. We see everybody with everybody else’s eyes. This is something Pakkanen does well. The transitions in perspective happen smoothly, they do not jar. Each character stays in character, as a coherent, individual whole, both when observing others and when being observed.  Unfortunately, the characters are not very deep; they harbour no deep secrets and offer no surprises, and they are quickly pieced together by the reader, who is left hoping that something more would be in store.
The plot in Korttelin kungingatar  is not very strong. There are no twists and hardly even any turns. It almost works: because the build up to the crime is so long and because of the shifting narrative perspective, the reader is lured into providing twists and turns of her own. Very early on you start to build different possible scenarios and begin to anticipate events. This is a detective story that works forwards in time: detecting a crime that has not yet happened. I think this is the most interesting quality of Korttelin kuningatar and saves an otherwise mediocre piece of writing.
 After the crime has occurred, the reader continues to speculate and examine the relationships between the characters. Now, the reader should be in the strongest position: we know more about the past events and the characters involved than either Anna Laine or Matti Martikka, the two detectives inside the narrative. So we should be able to solve the crime, if anyone can.
Yet, the end is disappointing, because you know that you are missing some important information.
Pakkanen runs against a classic hurdle of all mystery authors: if you have an omniscient narrator that freely flits from one character’s head to another, how do you convincingly hold back the crucial piece of information in order to delay the solution? In Korttelin kuningatar this is done very clumsily, without any attempts at hiding it: Tiia talks to Stefan (pp72-73) and Salla talks to her mother Meri (pp.102-3).  In both scenes the women are nervous, agitated and the words pour out uncontrolled: Tiia’s “kaiken yhtenä ryöppynä” (p73),  Salla’s ”sekavasti ja yhtenä ryöppynä” (p102) (“all in a torrent,”  “jumbled up and in a torrent”).  But what words? The reader is not told. It is clear that in these scenes important information is shared.  This becomes even clearer when shortly after each event, something dramatic happens to the recipients of this information (Stefan and Meri).
 It is almost as if Pakkanen gave up here, unable to figure out how to manage the plot, she ignores the hurdle. This is really where Korttelin kuningatar disappoints and Pakkanen does a bad job. It is no crime to artificially contrive to hide clues and postpone the final resolution of a mystery, but it is a crime, or at least shoddy writing, to let the reader be an eye-witness to  how it is done.
It hangs in the balance, whether the poor plot management in the end obliterates the unusual pleasure of anticipating the crime of a crime novel.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Yrsa Sigurðadóttir. The Silence of the Sea (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

On a windy night luxury yacht Lady K crashes into the harbour wall at Reykjavík. There is no one on board; all seven people who boarded the yacht in Lisbon have vanished. 

The original title Brakið (published in 2011) is snappier and more imaginative than the mundane English The Silence of the Sea. Brakið has both the meanings of ‘wrecked’ as in the case of the yacht at the centre of the narrative, and of ‘crashed’ or ‘crunched’ as in the case of the Icelandic economy.
The Silence of the SeaThe setting of the novel is in the aftermath of the financial disaster that struck the overextended Icelandic banking system at the end of the noughties. There is much talk about the uneven distribution of money (p35, 72), of making and losing fortunes (pp47, 62, 75, 106, 197, 327) and money trouble generally (pp69, 196, 203) The lives of all the characters are coloured by this experience and they are preoccupied with financial success. Debt, greed and desire to keep up with the Joneses are all present as motives.  The stricken yacht, a symbol of unbridled consumption, is in the very middle of it:

“… the incident was linked to the resolution committee appointed to wind up the affairs of one of Iceland’s failed banks. When the luxury yacht’s owner proved unable to pay back the bank loan with which he had purchased it, the committee had repossessed the vessel. As a result the yacht had been on its way from the Continent to Iceland, to be advertised for sale …” (pp13-14

When one of the four-man crew arranged for the yacht has to pull out, Ægir volunteers to take his place. He is an employee of the resolution committee sent to Lisbon to organize the paperwork for the yacht. He has brought along his wife Lára and eight-year old twin daughters Arna and Bylgja. Together they make up the group of people who vanish so mysteriously. Ægir, too, desires wealth, until the events on the yacht convince him otherwise: “What had he been dreaming of to think they needed money for their life to be perfect?” (p386). By then, it is too late.

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, Sigurðadóttir’s lawyer heroine familiar from her earlier crime novels, is hired by Ægir’s parents to prepare a life insurance claim. She has to find evidence that Ægir and Lára are both innocent and dead.

The Silence of the Sea is divided into (almost alternating) chapters that describe Thóra’s investigation in Reykjavík and the events on the yacht sailing towards Iceland. The opening of chapter two in Lisbon is a mild surprise: we see Ægir with his family “wandering the steep narrow lanes of the old city centre.” (p22) Yet we know already that these people will board Lady K and vanish into thin air. Instead of a classic detective story focused on events in the past, Sigurðadóttir gives us two parallel timelines: one retrospective (Thóra’s) and one ‘real time’ (Ægir’s). This is a significant technical achievement in the book.

Sigurðadóttir succeeds in keeping her story on an even keel, so that both strands of the narrative remain interesting. It would be very easy for the reader to lose her patience with Thóra’s investigation; after all, to know what really happened you only need to read the chapters that take place on the yacht.

Sigurðadóttir places every clue and every revelation in tandem. Thóra’s discoveries are illustrated by scenes on the yacht; the events on board are explained and given context by Thóra’s progressing investigation. In this way, the two parallel timelines complement each other and form a unified whole. Even at the end, neither the party on board or on land knows the whole truth.

Sigurðadóttir’s plotting and structuring of the novel are effective, the writing is not very good. There is an amount of superfluous padding in the novel, and it is in places a heavy read. The incident of the broken photocopier (pp8-9) rumbling on in the background is unnecessary and not very amusing. The loss of the photocopier does not, as far as I could see, affect the course of the plot in any way (no documents are delayed or lost, no unexpected encounters are created because of it. If I am wrong, please, let me know).

There is unnecessary detail about Thóra’s family life (pp235-8). It is hard to see what these scenes, like the ones describing how none of the family can cook (pp67-69) or Thóra taking her grandson to the nursery (pp194-5), contribute to the narrative. They are a cumbersome way to show Thóra’s character as a mother.  There is a subtle link between Thóra’s daughter drawing elephants on her homework (p70) and the twins on the yacht colouring a picture of an elephant in their colouring book (p49).

Similarly there is too much explanation in the narrative. Thóra is a lawyer, so we can expect her to deal in legal arguments. However, when she searches on the net for information about ghost ships and people missing at sea (pp97-98), or when she explains legal details to grieving grandparents (pp 127-9, 132-135, 290), it reads like Sigurðadóttir is giving us her research raw. It is good she has done her research, but it should in inform the narrative, instead of form the narrative.

There is much lying in the story, particularly telling white lies to children in order to shield them from the harsh truth: “There’s nothing wrong, everything’s going to be fine. …thus yacht is unsinkable…” (p318) “It’ll be all right.” (p339). In the end, Ægir “regretted telling the girls what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to know. If they were to come through this alive, they would have to be aware of the danger.” (pp383-4) 

People also lie to themselves to make things appear better, to postpone the inevitable. Begga talks about “a small misunderstanding over the property tax” (p111), “a spot of bother” with money “Only temporary, mind.” (p375) She tries to convince herself of her daughter Karitas’s devotion coming up with excuses for her. Karitas’s plan is simply to sell the house where Begga lives: “You’ll just have to fend for yourself.” (p375).

Telling stories to make things appear the way you would like them to be, extends from the immediate plot to the pervading theme of the Icelandic economic crash – like Begga, were the Icelandic people telling themselves that their nation is a financial superpower? And, since we are reading fiction, is Sigurðadóttir telling us what we want to hear?

The Silence of the Sea is not a neat story where justice is done. The crime may be solved, but the ramifications of the crime are horrendous. What was supposed to be a simple, controlled transaction, spirals out of control and results in unexpected, terrible consequences.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Leena Lehtolainen. Ensimmäinen murhani (Helsinki: Tammi, 1993)

Ensimmäinen murhani (My First Murder) is the debut crime novel by Lehtolainen (she published her first novel at the age of twelve). She is currently the most popular Finnish crime writer. Lehtolainen preceded the new wave of Nordic women crime writers (including Mari Jungstedt, Camilla Läckberg, Åsa Larsson, Viveka Sten, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir) by a decade and her work was finally translated also into English in 2012 (having been available in other European languages earlier) on the back of the recent enthusiasm for ‘Nordic noir.’ (Note that the translations of the excerpts here are mine, because I read the book in the original, and may differ from the published translation).
Ensimmäinen murhani opens the long Maria Kallio –series. Jukka Peltonen has been murdered in a summer night, on the jetty at the family summer house, where he and seven other members of a university student choir had gathered for singing, sauna and getting sloshed.
After the short “Preludi” (“Prelude”) which neatly introduces the setting and the murder, Lehtolainen switches to first person narrative by Maria Kallio. The language is relaxed, casual and with the kind of lame witticisms you might expect from a narrator like Kallio. Several references to primarily English Golden Age detective fiction (pp75, 105, 109. 147, 194) reveal a debut crime writer’s awareness of genre conventions. Much of the narrative is made up of Maria’s thoughts and doubts (more of that later), and she stays in character throughout. The narrative voice is convincing and consistent.
 The arc of the plot is simple and effective. The murder takes place in a closed setting with a limited cast of suspects – the seven friends at the summer house. While the possibility of an ‘outside’ killer is kept alive for suspense, it is never considered seriously. This is where the narrative gets close to losing its sharpness: although Lehtolainen has done her very best to differentiate between the seven: Tuulia, Sirkku, Piia, Mirja, Antti, Jyri and Timo, it is hard to tell them apart. In chapter two, they are all interviewed in close succession and sometimes they are referred to by their first names, sometimes surnames. They share a life-style that consists mainly of drinking and having sex (students, eh?) with some sports and singing in the choir. Because of the first person narrative and focus on the perspective of Kallio’s character, the other characters do not have a chance to develop much internal life or to engage the reader’s sympathies. Therefore, this bunch of  twenty-something students with intertwined personal lives are in danger of leaving the reader confused and, as a result, not interested.
As Kallio continues her investigation, the story opens up a little and moves beyond the tightly knit group of friends. Lehtolainen adds just enough booze, drugs, sex and money into the mix to keep the plot from becoming claustrophobic and boring. A note about Finnish universities may be appropriate here: Finns get their A-levels at the age of 18 or 19, after that, men do a year's national service. The standard master’s degree takes on average five years to complete. Many students take longer, much longer. There is no time limit and the university is free, so once you have passed the entrance exams, as long as you can support yourself, you can remain a student. This is why Ensimmäinen murhani has students in their mid- and late-twenties and Kallio is still an undergraduate student at the law faculty.
The plot is not the most interesting feature in Ensimmäinen murhani. What makes this crime novel stand out from the multitude of mediocre police procedurals is the focus on the experience of the detective.  Just like the suspects are ordinary, so is Kallio. She is a young woman, temping for the police while studying law. She is not quite sure what to do with her life. This self-deprecating, insecure and emotional detective is a fresh idea. From the start Maria Kallio doubts her position as a detective: “Minunko, kakaran näköisen naisentekeleen, oli nyt lähdettävä puolustamaan lakia ja järjestystä …” (“Was it up to me, a female creature looking like a kid, to go now and protect law and order …”) (p11)
At the crime scene, Kallio has to appear professional: “Psyykkasin itseäni kyyniseen, jopa agressiiviseen asenteeseen.” (“I pscyched myself up to a cynical, even aggressive, frame of mind.” (p17) Violence makes Kallio feel ill (pp79, 96). She finds the idea of sending someone to prison awful (p92) and it horrifies her to think how a murder victim becomes public property without any privacy (p94). She curses herself for choosing a job where she has to delve into people’s private affairs (p104). She questions her own motives: “Halusinko minä kostaa, halusinko mina onnistua, halusinko mina toteuttaa oikeutta? (“Did I want revenge, did I want success, did I want to achieve justice?” (p145)
It is central to the story that Maria Kallio knows her suspects; they are her old student friends. Both the detective and the suspects are part of the same peer group and part of the same community. This affects the experience of the detective. When Kallio finds out the identity of the murder victim, she wants to back out: “Mä tunsin sen Jukan, en mä halua tätä juttua! Mä en pysty olemaan objektiivinen.” (I knew that Jukka, I don’t want the case! I won’t be able to remain objective.”) (p52)
She gets emotionally involved with the suspects: she is annoyed with them, fond of them, romantically interested in them, and is happy to socialize with them. She is in conflict about the whole case: “Halusin selvittää murhan, utten halunnut kenenkään epaillyistäni olevan murhaaja.” (“I wanted to solve the murder, but I did not want any of my suspects to be the murderer.” (p152, see also p200)
Other interesting themes in Ensimmäinen murhani are women and booze – or gender relations and drinking culture. The first thought Maria Kallio has in the novel is about her weight “... vartaloni oli siedettävämmässä kunnossa kuin vuosiin. Tosin tällä kaljanjuontitahdilla en pääsisi koskaan eroon vatsamakkaroistani.” ("... my figure was in the most bearable shape for years. Although, with the current pace of beer-drinking, I would never get rid of my spare tyre.”) (p10) Lehtolainen sadly resorts to the cliché of the first person narrative and has Kallio look into a mirror in order to be able to describe her appearance (p11).
Kallio is painfully aware of her own position as a female police detective. She thinks she got the job, because she is a woman (p92). She has to be twice as tough as her male colleagues, who observe her for any signs of weakness (pp14-15). She imagines newspaper headlines: “Naispoliisi tutkimusvastuussa – Murha ei ole vielä selvinnyt” (“Woman Officer in Charge of Investigation – Murder Remains Unsolved”) (p56, see also p67).
As a young woman without a boyfriend Kallio has inevitably been labelled a lesbian: “’Se on varmaan lesbo, ei kai se muuten olisi näihin miestin hommiin hakeutunut’. Olin kuullut saman laulun monta kertaa.” (“’She must be a lesbian, why else would she have sought her way into a man’s job like this.’ I had heard that tune many times.”) (p93) Her boss stares at her breasts (p96) and offers her permanent position: “Kyllä tällä osastolla olisi hyvä yksi nainenkin olla, ihan imagonkin vuoksi.” (“It would be good to have one woman in this department, too, even just for the sake of the image.”) (p191) When excitedly she starts giving orders to a colleague, Kallio suspects he will think of her as a “höyryjyräfeministinä” (“a steamroller feminist”) (p220).
When Kallio interviews a rapist, the man, a well-educated engineer, replies smiling: “Paskat mitään raiskasin – pikkusen naida napsautin. Olisi ollut tyytyväinen mitä sai. … Vai mikä vitun lesbo säkin olet …” (Shit, that was no rape – I just skippidy-screwed a little. Should’ve been happy with what she got.  … What a fucking lesbian are you … (p177) This is a shocking attitude towards women – the victim was an 18-year-old school girl – but it rings disturbingly true. 
In this world of raw male-chauvinism, Kallio is a tough woman, she does not shave her legs (p139), and when her boyfriend once was called “a long-haired homo” in the queue to the snack-stand she punched the drunken oaf who said that (p143). Kallio is forthright about the charms of the opposite sex. Even the murder victim “oli ollut varsinainen silmänilo.” (“had been a joy to look at”) (p15). She says appreciatively of a witness who is a male prostitute: “En ihmetellyt yhtään, että hänelle löytyi ottajia. Mukava tuommoista namua olisi olisi sekä katsoa että koskea.” “I did not wonder at all that he had takers. Such a sweetie would be nice to both look at and touch.”) (p193)
Alcohol is everywhere. Admittedly we are moving in student circles and pub-culture in Finland is strong, but even then Ensimmäinen murhani is awash with hooch. Maria Kallio is often in need of a drink (pp55, 89, 105, 127, 137, 153, 164), she always had beer in her fridge (p80). She is leading the investigation because her boss is an alcoholic (p14).  Jyri’s student flat is of course full of empty beer bottles (p85) and his kitchen cupboard “näytti sisältävän enimmäkseen pulloja” (“seemed to mostly contain bottles”) (p89). Choir practice and sports is always followed by a session at a pub (p136) and beer is taken along to sports fields (pp90, 214). When Kallio has a chat in the street, there is even a convenient, empty beer-can to kick around (p147). And finally, there is a subplot involving moonshine (it is an “official duty” of the police to taste it, p99)
The tone of in Ensimmäinen murhani  is rough and gloomy: the sense of loneliness and inability to really know the people around is paramount. The conclusion of the novel is truly worthy of the label ‘Nordic noir.’ There is no sense of jubilation or satisfaction for justice done. Confronting the culprit, tears swell up in Kallio’s eyes, she reckons that the killer “oli varmasti tuntunut samalta kuin minusta nyt. Minutkin oli petetty, minuakin oli käytetty hyväksi.” (“surely felt the same way I was feeling now. I, too, had been betrayed, I, too, had been used.” (p235). . This is where Lehtolainen subscribes to the views of other Nordic crime writers: criminals are not individuals outside of society, they are members of society. Criminals are not strange and different; they are like us and our best friends.The reason for crime if often alienation, lack of communication and mistrust. The story ends with tears and some moonshine.