Book Review: The Man Who Died

“Death only comes round once in a lifetime”

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), is a thriller written with a wicked sense of humour. Set in Finland during a sultry summer, it opens with the protagonist, thirty-seven year old Jaakko Kaunismaa, being told by his doctor that he will die soon, possibly within the next few days. Jaakko has been slowly poisoned, irreparably damaging vital organs. This news comes as something of a shock as Jaakko believed he had flu and would be cured with a course of antibiotics. With death imminent he is determined to discover who has done this to him.

Still in shock, Jaakko seeks out his wife, Taina, for advice. He finds her in a compromising position with one of their employees. While digesting this second piece of new and unwelcome information he starts to suspect that she may be behind the poisoning. Taina is a skilled cook and prepares most of what Jaakko eats. If he is to confront her he requires proof.

Jaakko is CEO of a moderately successful mushroom processing and distribution company. Recently, competitors have set up beside his factory. Run by three local thugs they threaten Jaakko and headhunt key members of his staff. With his life close to its end Jaakko decides that he wishes to save the business and ensure it does not all go to his suspected murderer.

From being a comfortable but unexciting boss, Jaakko proposes innovative changes to operations. This sudden switch in personality surprises everyone, not least his wife. The competitors are impatient with Jaakko’s refusal to do as they demand and threaten violence. In a bizarre series of events the police become involved and Jaakko is forced into hiding. He discovers that Taina is planning something to do with the business and is determined to thwart her.

Plans require immediate action as Jaakko may have little time left. He must also battle the symptoms which can, at times, be debilitating. He requires assistance but must be clever in bringing on board those who he previously had little to do with. Imminent death brings into sharp focus what must be achieved when reacting to unfolding events. While there is still life though, there are also typically human vanities and concerns. These are portrayed with sympathy, gently mocking at times but empathetic.

This is a clever and entertaining take on the thriller genre, offering unexpected twists with just a touch of the surreal. Coming face to face with one’s demise may sharpen focus but death is, after all, a prospect anyone living could face on any given day. Deftly written with a satisfying originality this is a warm and witty but still suspenseful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: The Mine

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The Mine, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), introduces the reader to journalist Janne Vuori who works for a small newspaper in Helsinki. He receives an anonymous email suggesting he should investigate a nickel mine in Suomalahti, a small town in the weather challenged north of the country. The mine has received funding from the government and provides much needed employment in an area where work is scarce. The cost to the environment is not so well understood.

Janne is a diligent and determined investigative reporter who believes his job is of vital importance. He derides the work his wife does for a consultancy firm with clients in the weapons and tobacco industries. She is equally scathing of his attitude, especially when he chooses to neglect her and their toddler daughter. She accuses him of chasing personal glory.

Despite his boss’s reluctance to pursue the tip-off, Janne travels north. He is denied access to the mine but sees enough to convince him that something untoward is going on. He makes contact with a former board member, and discovers that a predessessor at his newspaper had also started an investigation. This reporter is now dead, his notes mysteriously removed from storage.

Alongside Janne’s investigations the reader is taken inside the mind of a killer, an experienced hitman who is chillingly good at his job. As the body count rises these two men will find their lives colliding.

The writing is utterly compelling – I read this book in a sitting. I shivered at the bleakness and cold of a wintery Finland evoked. The layers of Janne’s character – his need to write, his desire not to let his family down, his demand for validation and support despite offering little in return –  made for thought provoking reading. It was hard not to sympathise with all concerned.

The denouement tied up each plot thread whilst skillfully maintaining the bones of all that had gone before. Questionable decisions were made but they fit perfectly the characters and story. In many ways this is a straightforward crime thriller but the execution achieves so much more. It provides a dark and altogether satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on The Finnish Invasion Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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The Mine is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Exiled

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The Exiled, by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston), is the third book in the Anna Fekete series of crime thrillers (you may read my review of the second, The Defenceless, here). This latest story is set in and around the town of Kanizsa, Serbia, where Anna is taking a much needed holiday with her mother and brother who now live in the area. Anna was born in Kanizsa but finds its customs and expectations invasive having acclimatised herself to life in Finland. She and her family have many friends eager to renew their acquaintance with a young woman they regard as a success. Some grew up with her parents and talk intimately about her late father who she barely remembers. Anna questions where she now considers home.

The story opens with a suicide. It then moves back a couple of weeks to take the reader through events leading up to this death. Anna has only just arrived in town and is attending a local wine festival with her former friends. The convivial atmosphere is shattered when her bag is stolen, the thief using the crowds to assist in his getaway. Anna gives chase but to no avail. Her friends casually blame the gypsies, an assertion that annoys the more broad-minded visitor.

There are tensions in the town due to the growing number of refugees arriving from conflict zones around the world. Along with the Romani they are blamed for rising crime and a faltering economy. When Anna’s bag is recovered, albeit stripped of cash, credit card and passport, a Romani man, found dead, is blamed and the police close the case. Anna is dissatisfied with their investigation and reluctantly decides to check things out herself.

Anna is a brittle yet determined young woman. Her somewhat abrupt manner is mirrored in the prose. It evokes a bleak situation shadowed by corruption and undercurrents of fear. Given the current problems in Europe the agitation felt by many of the characters is prescient.

Anna uncovers a disturbing series of events that suggest respected citizens are routinely breaking the law. There have been miscarriages of justice but, when itinerant people are involved, few seem to care.

The writing remains sharp and focused throughout, flowing deftly as the true darkness of the tale is revealed. Anna is a complex, vulnerable yet strong and admirable protagonist. This was a taut and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on The Finnish Invasion Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

finnish-blog-tour-1

The Exiled is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Defenceless

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The Defenceless, by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston) was perfect reading for a weekend when the media was overrun by privileged Europeans wringing their hands over what to do about an influx of desperate refugees seeking sanctuary, yet wary of upsetting their own comfortable lives. This is the second in a series of crime thrillers featuring investigator Anna Fekete, who herself fled a warzone as a child. Set in Finland the tale is as dark and challenging as the Scandinavian weather.

The reader is introduced to Sammy, a Pakistani Christian who was smuggled into Finland alongside the heroin grown to “feed the hungry veins of Western Europeans”. We learn that he too is an addict, hiding from the authorities since his application for asylum was rejected. We meet Macke, the small time dealer from whom Sammy buys his regular fix, and witness the death of the first of the story’s victims. Vilho, an old man and a neighbour, enters Macke’s apartment to complain of loud music, and suffers a violent end.

The author makes no attempt to present the growing number of refugees in this cold, Finnish town as upstanding members of the community; they include criminals and addicts. There are also those who are highly educated and wish to work but cannot make use of their superior skills until granted asylum, a process which can take many years spent eking out a living with whatever menial jobs they can find, the constant threat of deportation hanging over them.

Senior Constable Anna Fekete and her work partner, Esko Niemi, have their own problems with addiction, to alcohol and nicotine. When Vilho’s body is found, hit by a car driven by the economic migrant, Gabriella, the first thing to rule out is if she was drunk or high whilst driving. I pondered how the reader would feel towards this pale skinned, young women had she been found to be temporarily impaired; how this would contrast with the dismissal of the dark haired and dark skinned asylum seekers whom Esko wishes to send home, even if to their deaths, rather than have them feeding their habits on ‘his’ streets.

Such comparisons run through the various threads of the story adding depth and challenging reader perceptions. The futility of such nationalistic attitudes is highlighted in Anna’s musings on her beloved grandmother:

“Grandma, that dear, wonderful, wise, warm-hearted lady who had never once moved house, but who had still lived in five different states. The borders moved, rulers came and went, names changed and maps were redrawn”

Anna and Esko have more than just the death of an old man and a few illegal immigrants to deal with. As their investigations progress a blood stained knife is found in woodland and an elderly woman, living in the same apartment complex as Vilho and Macke, is reported missing. Their boss at the Violent Crimes Unit, Chief Inspector Pertti Virkkunen, is also concerned with wider issues. Intelligence reports suggest that a powerful crime syndicate, calling themselves the Black Cobra’s, are trying to establish themselves in Finland and could ignite a turf war with the resident Hell’s Angels. He believes that the drug dealers in Anna’s case may be linked to this bigger problem.

There are numerous plot lines to follow: the treatment of legal and illegal immigrants; the impact of small and big time criminal gangs; Anna’s disquiet about Gabriella; the relationships that adult children have with their relatives. The author throws in such asides as how distasteful some find the idea of geriatric sex, and how fearful a consumerist society is of oil supplies running out despite the fact that man lived without it for centuries.

Alongside all of this Anna must deal with the casual racism and misogyny of her colleagues. She is lonely with her family far away but eschews a relationship as the men she meets wish to turn her into their idea of what a woman should be. There is darkness but also humour. I shivered in the raw landscape, felt wary of the brooding woods. Esko may not have been likeable but I empathised with his pain.

The best crime fiction offers so much more than the solving of crimes. This book offers a twisting and turning plot presented within a raw and tightly written narrative. It also takes the reader inside the heads of every character, enabling them to see their world anew.

A powerful and captivating read that I did not wish to put down so finished in a day. I will be absorbing the thoughts elicited for much longer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.