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.
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.