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)