Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart: Helsinki Noir

For a tale as dark as this Finnish mystery, I thought my gargoyle was a suitable accoutrement, n’est-ce pas?

At this point in my bookish journey through Scandinavia, I decided to read a piece of crime fiction.  Aside from the sheer pleasure of it, there’s good reason for including something a bit more on the popular side than my two previous selections (i.e., a trilogy of literary memoirs and a short but challenging piece of avant-garde fiction).  After all, since it emerged in the 1990s, Nordi noir has been a dominant presence in both film and crime fiction.  Although I did read some of the early authors (a fair amount of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and a Jo Nesbø or two), I drifted away and never quite drifted back.  There’s been a lot of bodies left in the snow since that time, so to speak, and the emergence of a correspondingly large number of new and exciting writers to tell their tales.  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to explore this unfamiliar territory by adding a noir or two to my lists for Annabel’s #NordicFinds month and the European Reading Challenge.


ERC 2022

After all, how can you take a literary journey through Scandinavia without including at least one tale of a brooding, angst-ridden protagonist who threads his/her way through murder and mayhem whilst musing dark existential thoughts?  Do you, dear readers, have any favorites from this genre?  If so, please share, as my TBR list always has room for more entries!

For my stopover in Finland, I chose Dark As My Heart, an early work by Antti Tuomainen, one of his country’s leading crime writers (Lola Rogers did the translation).  The story begins in 1993, where in a few brief pages we experience the murder of Sonja Kivi, alone in a car with her killer on a rainy October night.  Sonja is young (early thirties), attractive and, except for her thirteen-year-old son Aleksi, alone in the world.  As we subsequently learn as the story develops, she was employed by one of the many companies owned by Henrik Saarinen, a ruthless and wealthy Helsinki businessman with an eye for the ladies.  Because Sonja’s body is never found, the police regard hers as “a missing person” case.  The mystery of her disappearance is never solved and Aleksi goes into foster care.

In the years that follow, Aleksi structures his life around one thing, and one thing only — solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance.  He ages out of foster care (unlike the U.S. system, the Finnish version seems relatively benevolent), declines college in favor of becoming a skilled carpenter and, all the time, he’s seeking the answer to his mother’s fate.  Aleksi keeps his human contacts to a minimum, ultimately sacrificing even his relationship with a woman he genuinely loves to his quest for justice for his dead mother.  Aleksi is the very epitome of a noir anti-hero; we see the story through his first-person narrative and we learn the facts as he learns them.  In 2003, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, a second woman who bears a strong physical resemblance to Sonja is found murdered.  She, too, was an employee of Henrik Saarinen.  Her killer is never found and the police refuse to listen to Aleksi’s claim that the murder is linked to his mother’s disappearance.

Fast forward to 2013 and Aleksi, now in his early thirties, is convinced that Henrik Saarinen is his mother’s killer.  Without disclosing his identity, he goes to work on the Saarinen estate outside Helsinki and sets out to unmask and confront Henrik.  The bulk of the novel occurs in this time period and centers on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Aleksi and Henrik, who clearly knows more than Aleksi gives him credit for knowing.  A cast of secondary players support and complicate the plot, most notably Amanda, Saarinen’s beautiful daughter (doesn’t every good noir need a beautiful heiress?) and Ketomaa, the retired policeman who investigated the disappearance of Aleksi’s mother and who has never given up on the case.  Needless to say, digging into the Saarinen family secrets is both difficult and dangerous; as he becomes more involved with the Saarinen family Aleksi’s emotional defenses begin to crumble.

Although I’ve recounted the essentials of the plot in a chronological way, this novel is quite structurally complex, with the action moving back and forth among 1993, 2003 & 2013; Tuomainen uses this device very skillfully to dole out information and maintain suspense.  Despite finding some of the secondary characters a bit two dimensional, Aleksi himself was a believable and compelling narrator.  The novel conveys a good sense of place, both of Helsinki itself and of Kalmela Manor, Henrik Saarinen’s secluded country estate.  The language is terse, as befits a good noir, but with a streak of poetry here and there, as displayed in this passage where Aleksi describes his early impression of the estate:

I closed the door of the manor house and stood on the veranda.  Two plump-breasted crows sat on the roof, utterly still.  Against the grey sky they were like those black silhouettes cut from cardboard that people used to buy at amusement parks and hang on the wall to show others something that they already knew — what the people memorialised looked like in profile.  Autumn wrapped the land in its groping embrace.  I listened to the movement of the gusting wind through the tall spruce trees and the birches that bordered the yard.  The air was thin and fresh, with a hint of sap in it, a sweet smell. 

As much a psychological drama as a straight mystery, Dark As My Heart also raised issues regarding obsession, vengeance and the need sometimes to forget the past and move on with life.  I spent a very enjoyable afternoon or two trying to guess who did it and why; that I couldn’t do so speaks volumes for the writer’s skill!  With a caveat that none of the characters are warm and fuzzy, I’d definitely recommend Dark to readers with a taste for Scandi noir, damaged protagonists and mysteries with an ambiguous edge.

18 thoughts on “Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart: Helsinki Noir

  1. Beautiful writing here. I could also recommend the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason if you feel like reading more Noir fiction in future. Jar City is excellent and it was also made into a very good film.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mallika — if you like noir you might like this one, which uses the formula well (brooding loner protagonist; beautiful heiress, dark doings among the rich & powerful; trusty old cop who won’t give up the case and so on). In addition, the writer does a nice spin, by giving you a sympathetic hook and psychological to the main character (this thirteen year old was scarred by losing his mom). And it does give a nice sense of place.
      I didn’t comment on the violence, which is there, especially in the opening scene (hey, I’m from the U.S., where “violence is us” so to speak). But then, if you read noir that’s part of the game!
      If you do get to it, you must let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wouldn’t say I’ve read much of it but I do have a general idea of the atmosphere and how things go. I’m not much of a fan of violence in the books I read but can manage so long as it’s not too much. I’ll keep a look out of this one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds excellent – gripping, complex and really well-written. The psychological aspects add an extra dimension too.

    I’m going to recommend this to a friend who loves Scandi Noir. (She’s already burned her way through the entire works of several leading crime writers and is always on the lookout for new recommendations. Funnily enough, I’m due to speak to her later, so your timing is impeccable!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad to be of service, JacquiWine! I do hope your friend likes it. Since it IS noir, there’s definitely a formula (loner protagonist; dark doings among the powerful; beautiful & dangerous woman etc) but — the writer adds a sympathetic hook (this guy lost his mom when he was 13, for heaven’s sake) and psychological insight.
    I haven’t read noir in a long time (and I’ve missed many of the greats) and had forgotten how enjoyable it can be!
    Forgot to add that there IS some rather graphically described violence in a couple of scenes, especially the opening (just in case your friend is sensitive here).


  4. Sounds like an excellent book, and not an author I’ve read. I went through a huge Scandi crime period, but moved away from it when it got repetetive and also the violence against women was too extreme. But I would highly recommend the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – they were written during the 1960s and into the 1970s, and covered the social changes in the country as well as the policing and crime. A wonderful ensemble cast series of books – love them!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Kaggsy! I enjoyed your comment that Tuomainen is new to you because — this is the very first book by a Finnish author, any Finnish author, that I’ve ever read! Aren’t reading event wonderful? They really do expand one’s world, at least for those like me who tend to be rather parochial in their reading selections.
    My Scandi crime period wasn’t nearly as extensive as yours, being mostly confined to Mankell’s Wallender series. I think I commented on your very recent review of an Amanda Cross mystery that I rarely stick out a series to the end and so it was with Wallender. As you say, it became a bit repetitive and other books were calling my name. I, too, have problems with violence, particularly against women (can’t rewatch Girl With The Dragon Tattoo); oddly, the more I’m exposed to it, the more problematical it’s become.
    Thanks so much for the recommendation; I’d heard of the series but knew little about it. The inclusion of social issues is definitely a plus. I read noir and mysteries primarily for sheer pleasure, but as with any translation learning something about the culture that produced the work is a definite plus.


  6. Hi Annabel! I just read your review of Tuomainen’s The Healer last night and — guess what’s now on my (overflowing) TBR? He really is an interesting writer who adds his own little twists to noir fiction. Without #NordicFINDS I doubt I would have found him, so many thanks!


    1. Hi Liz — totally understand if this one’s not for you. I read noir, and enjoy it, but in limited quantities; some of the Scandi stuff can be pretty dark indeed.
      I, too, have noticed that the main energy in the Scandi translation field seems to be directed at noir and have wondered why (sales are the obvious answer, I suppose. But if no translations, no sales, right?). When I did my review of Tove Ditlevson’s memoirs, I was shocked to learn that the translation of the third volume (Dependency) was largely a labor of love on the translator’s part — he saw the Danish edition in an airport, realized it had never been translated and did a chunk of the project without any financial backing. It’s easy for me to say, but I do wish publishers could/would take something of a long view and realize that it might be possible to have more readers if they broadened their offerings a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

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