Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Harri Nykanen. Raid and the Blackest Sheep (Ice Cold Crime LLC, 2010)

Raid and the Blackest Sheep is about men and death. It is about settling scores, but also about nostalgia, mortality and the changing of generations. It is about fear. There is fear of death, fear of growing old, and fear of loneliness. But there is no fear of violence or fear of law.
Raid is a ‘torpedo’, a gun-for-hire; a young man of few words and lightning-fast reflexes. He first appeared in the eponymous novel Raid in 1992. So far, there are ten books in the series. Raid and the Blackest Sheep is number four. It was the first to be translated into English. There are also a TV series and a film.

Harri Nykänen (1953-) worked for Helsingin Sanomat as a crime reporter until 2001, when he became a full-time writer. His writing career began in 1986 with Kuusi katkeraa miljoonaa (‘Six Bitter Million’). His latest novel is Mullasta Maan, published 2014 (‘From the Soil of the Land’). Nykänen writes three crime series known by their protagonists: Raid, Ariel Kafka and Johnny & Bantzo. He has also written a variety of other crime stories and non-fiction. Raid and the Blackest Sheep won the 2001 “Vuoden Johtolanka” (“The Clue of the Year”) prize for the year’s best crime story in Finland, both for the novel and the TV series created from it.

In Raid and the Blackest Sheep, Raid returns from Sweden to chauffeur a legendary old con-man Nygren around Finland. They run various criminal errands involving large amounts of euros and bullets. The police are on their trail trying to piece together Nygren and Raid’s plans. Along the way we are introduced to a cast of idiosyncratic characters on both sides of the law. Like all good road trips in fiction, this, too, is both a physical journey and a spiritual one.

Nygren is legendary and a larger than life villain. His dress sense is flamboyant: “he resembled an Italian multimillionaire (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p29). His thinking is philosophical: “My forte is the meaning of life.” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p190) He is an old-school con artist and a raconteur who gains the reader’s sympathy. At his first stopping point in Turku, he says to a priest: “Were I a sheep, I’d be one of the blackest, but the only thing I take from anybody is money. You take their souls.” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p8).

On this trip, Raid is an audience to Nygren’s tales and philosophical musings. Raid, too, has a reputation in the world of crime. When police tell Sariola who shot him, he replies: “Raid! That guy was Raid? The Raid?” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p117) Raid is the brand name of the most popular insect killer in Finland. We can assume that it is the hero’s chosen professional name. As Lieutenant Kempas puts it: “He kills bugs dead.” (Ibid.) From early on in the book, we learn that Raid has a personal relationship with Lieutenant Jansson.

Jansson is fifty-four years old, overweight with “sixty pounds of excess fat” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p13), and balding. For most of the narrative he is feeling uncomfortable with his physical condition, his career and his marriage. He has been sent to a “physical rehabilitation center” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p14) full of war veterans (Raid and Blackest Sheep, pp18, 24). Jansson, like Nygren, is a sympathetic figure. Jansson, like Nygren, also has a young side-kick. Jansson’s is Sergeant Huusko, with his “trademark black leather jacket” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p20) and a fondness for women and bad jokes.

The story successfully contrasts the older men’s preoccupation with ideas of aging, decay and approaching death with the younger men’s apparently less problematic approach to life, which is reflected in Raid’s cold-hearted violence and Huusko’s careless attitude to women: “Women are strange. One night together and they wnt to wash your clothes and knit you a sweater.” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p96)

Raid and the Blackest Sheep is written in an economical and effective style. It is delightfully noir with undertones of American pulp fiction, reminiscent of Richard Stark and Laurence Block but with distinctly Finnish slumbering gloom and irony. The humour is black, the violence is brutal and the sauna is hot.

The opening is very strong. Raid is at the wheel of Nygren’s classic Mercedes and Nygren is sleeping in the back seat. When he wakes up he asks Raid: “Where are we?” Raid replies: Just past the half-way mark.” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p2). We join these two men on the road knowing nothing about them or the purpose of their trip. Their conversation is enough to make us curious. Alternate chapters follow the crooks and the cops. Each chapter consists of smaller scenes; there is hardly any padding and very little explanation or background information. The reading experience is cinematic – a series of scenes that make up a coherent story.

The language follows the same principle of economy, there is hardly a metaphor in sight; even adverbs are kept to a minimum. This undoubtedly has made the novel a little easier to translate from Finnish to English. It is hard to say whether the short, call-spade-a-spade-style is carried on from the original or partly created by a particularly brisk translator, but it works. The translation is good. There are linguistic touches which add to the exotic Finnish feel. ‘Torpedo’ (the same word in Finnish) as a slang term used for a hired thug or assassin is familiar in Finnish crime fiction, but it is seldom encountered in English-language crime novels (Raid and Blackest Sheep, pp21, 213). Some Finnish words have been left in the text: Raid’s mother serves “pulla rolls with cold milk.” Pulla is a sweet wheat bun, often flavoured with raisins and cardamom. Sariola has “salmiakki salt liquorice” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p115) on the table by his hospital bed. Salmiakki is liquorice flavoured with ammonium chloride (for more about this Finnish favourite, see Leaving these Finnish words for traditional foodstuffs in the English text suitably adds to the foreign feel in this highly stylised story. There are many other details that are typical to Finnish culture. “Hobo’s Rose” is on the jukebox at the local tavern (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p27). The song, “Rentun Ruusu” by its original name was a great come-back hit for Irwin Goodman in 1988 and remains popular. “Raid’s own car was a Volvo Amazon” (Raid and Blackest Sheep, p30). This was a popular car among Finnish young men back in the 1980s. The model had an appealing echo of American cars of the 1950s with its small tailfins and large shoulders. This was the car my friends’ big brothers drove.
Raid and Blackest Sheep is a good mix of noir crime and Finnish national character. It also balances plot and character well: the events flow from the nature of the characters. There is much suitably dark humour in it as well as maudlin sentimentalism. In a short novel of violence and crime, Nykänen has managed to cram in much about life and its meaning. In the end, you almost come away thinking that all is well with the world. The crimes have been solved, retribution is complete, and peace has been restored. But Raid’s last act in the novel is a chilling final twist. It raises questions about the true nature of his character and about the whole story. Nykänen is an interesting and complex crime writer whose preoccupations clearly go far beyond the simple act of murder.