Snow Angels, by James Thompson

>> Saturday, January 31, 2015

TITLE: Snow Angels
AUTHOR: James Thompson

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary Finland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts a series

The first thriller in a new series featuring Inspector Kari Vaara: the haunted, hardened detective who must delve into Finland's dark and violent underbelly.

Kaamos: Just before Christmas, the bleakest time of the year in Lapland. The unrelenting darkness and extreme cold above the Arctic Circle drive everyone just a little insane . . . perhaps enough to kill.

A beautiful Somali immigrant is found dead in a snowfield, her body gruesomely mutilated, a racial slur carved into her chest. Heading the murder investigation is Inspector Kari Vaara, the lead detective of the small-town police force. The vicious killing may have been a hate crime, a sex crime-or one and the same. Vaara knows he must keep this potentially ex­plosive case out of the national headlines or else it will send shock waves across Finland, an insular nation afraid to face its own xenophobia.

The demands of the investigation begin to take their toll on Vaara and his marriage. His young American wife, Kate, newly pregnant with their first child, is struggling to adapt to both the unforgiving Arctic climate and the Finnish culture of silence and isolation. Meanwhile Vaara himself, haunted by his rough childhood and failed first marriage, discovers that the past keeps biting at his heels: He suspects that the rich man for whom his ex-wife left him years ago may be the killer.

Endless night can drive anyone to murder.

I was really close to moving to Helsinki last year, so I’ve since felt a sort of personal interest in Finland and picked up several books set there. The fashion for Scandi noir being what it is, they are all mysteries (and yes, I know Finland is not a Scandinavian country, but it kind of fits in the trend!).

Snow Angel features Inspector Kari Vaara. Kari spent some time as a detective in Helsinki as a young man, but has returned to his hometown, a really small town close to the Arctic circle. As the book starts, he's been living there for a few years and he is as happy as he's ever been. He has recently got married to Kate, an American woman who moved to the area to run a ski resort, and they are expecting their first child.

And then Kari gets called to a crime scene. It's very ugly. The victim is a young Somali woman, an actress who's been making a name for herself in a series of B movies. She's been horribly mutilated, including racial slurs being carved onto her chest. And the investigation quickly turns up suspects with connections, both to power and to Kari's personal life, making an already delicate case particularly difficult.

The setting was probably the best thing about this book. It's not an urban setting, which might be a bit more international (as Kari mentions, there is a large expatriate community in Helsinki), but an isolated, rural setting beyond the Arctic circle. The writer is from the US and lives in Finland and is clearly writing for an international audience, so some of the things that would be just presented unquestioned by a Finnish author writing for a Finnish audience are given a lot more context and explanation. One one hand, this makes the narrator not feel particularly natural, but it WAS interesting stuff and I enjoyed it. It’s a completey different view from the shallow conventional wisdom about Finland, a lot more negative and dark, which was interesting. I’d be interested to know what a Finn would say about some of Thompson's views of the country, though!

Unfortunately, the setting was not just the best thing about the book, it was pretty much the only good thing. The mystery was terribly done. First, the initial crime feels quite exploitative unnecessarily graphic, and the horror doesn't stop there. The body count keeps climbing, with the plot getting more and more preposterous.

And then there was Kari's investigation, which was just plain jaw-droppingly bad and unbelievable. For all that Kari tells us that Finnish police are amongst the world's best and that he has lots of experience in real investigations from the time he worked in Helsinki, he shows a remarkable lack of judgment. Just to give one single example (and there are many): the first viable suspect he identifies is the man his ex-wife left him for. That part was fine, the evidence really was pointing his way. But does Kari recuse himself from the investigation? Nope, even though he's offered the opportunity. He picks the man up himself and heads the interrogation. The fact that he doesn't see just how stupid an idea this is is bad enough, but the fact that the chief of police, supposedly a man with a great awareness of public relations, doesn't insist was incredible. And this is just the start of a string of actions that range from obliviousness to naiveté (my favourite was how he kept telling everyone everything in great detail).

I liked the relationship between Kari and his wife a bit better. Kate is starting to struggle. She knows very few people apart from Kari and none of them well, so she is understandingly feeling isolated. It was an interesting conflict, but the problem was that she sometimes reacted in ways that didn’t feel emotionally believable, like getting really shrill and unreasonably demanding when Kari is just doing his job (that's not a problem necessarily; what bothered me most was that the narrative seemed to imply some of these demands were reasonable).

So, not a success, this one. I don't think I'll be reading more in this series.



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