Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Christmas Crime: Snow Angels by James Thompson (an Inspector Kari Vaara mystery)

Lapland is in the northern part of Finland, located 100 miles inside the Arctic Circle. This time of year, there is almost 24 hours of darkness. One week before Christmas, Sufia Elmi, a Somalian B-movie actress at least as famous for her looks as for her talent, has been found dead in three feet of snow. Her body was mutilated, with "nigger whore" carved into her stomach (likely while she was still alive), and her struggles have formed the shape of a snow angel around her body.

The case is taken by Laplander police inspector Kari Vaara. Is it a race crime or a sex crime? Is it the first of a potential series of killings? Either way, Vaara says of the crime, "There's a lot of hate here." Coincidentally, Sufia has been murdered in the same place Vaara met his wife Kate, an American. (In a flashback, we discover his name means "Rock Danger" or something equally silly in English. He tells Kate, "I promise it sounds better in Finnish.")

Snow Angels (published as Lumienkelit in Finland) is the first in a new mystery series from author James Thompson. A Kentucky-born American who has lived in Finland for over a decade, Thompson is able to write knowledgably of the environment and society while retaining an outsider's eye for important details.

Thompson embraces the dark side of society much like his namesake Jim Thompson (the name under which this author is published outside the U.S.). Both Vaara and Kate share a bad childhood and a bum leg, Vaara still hasn't dealt with his role in the death of his sister Suvi, and these are only two of the things hanging over Vaara's head in this Finnish noir.

Vaara quickly discovers that this case is going to get personal. The prime suspect is the man whose credit card paid for Sufia's residence, a Helsinki bigwig named Seppo Niemi, also coincidentally the man that Vaara's ex-wife left him for 13 years ago. So now, in addition to a national chief of police who wants him off the case and responding officers who want to go on vacation, Vaara has to deal with an ex-wife who thinks that the arrest of Niemi constitutes some kind of "dish best eaten cold" revenge by Vaara for her leaving him.

Numerous other suspects arise through various sexual connections. (Sufia's father thought she was pure, but forensic evidence suggests this to be far from the truth.) As their numbers decrease through attrition, the investigation zeroes in on a few.

Things eventually get so personal for Vaara that he wants to recuse himself, but by that time he needs to solve the case or ruin his career. But if he keeps on, his marriage to Kate, months pregnant with his child, may be ruined by his intense focus away from her. Can he both see justice served and be home for Christmas dinner? The solution is both shocking and fairly played.

Thompson is a skilled wordsmith who writes invisible prose that lets the culture and all the dark undercurrents come flowing off the page in an almost overwhelming gush. Snow Angels is a dark and engrossing read that will be best appreciated by fans of modern European noir writers.

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