~Post by Chris M.
Let’s face it; Scandinavian crime fiction is becoming a densely populated scene due to the recent success of Steig Larsson and his The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (aka The Millennium Trilogy) books. Because of this American readers are seeing more and more books plastered with the phrase “For Fans of Steig Larsson” and “If you liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…” but it’s all just a marketing ploy designed to cash-in on the success of one man’s work, and it doesn’t do Scandinavian writers any favors. Contrary to what American publishers would have you believe all Scandinavian crime fiction is not the same. As an avid reader of Nordic crime novels it’s a little disheartening to see this unique brand of fiction glossed over and compared to its most successful export. So where does this leave readers who are interested in Scandinavian crime fiction? Sadly, it leaves them mostly in the dark. But never fear, dear readers, for I have come to shed some much needed light on this diverse and varied genre!
Even as I write this I’m thinking of dozens of great Nordic crime writers who have little in common with Mr. Larsson yet somehow get lumped in the same pile. As much as I’d like to rattle off a list of my favorite working Nords, I will restrain myself. What I am going to do is give you an introduction to a promising new writer who I believe will satisfy your need for icy crimes and desolate landscapes. That writer is James Thompson, an American (gasp!) who’s been living in Finland for over a decade and who’s Inspector Kari Vaara novels rival some of the best crime writing from native Scandinavians and Americans alike.
I was first introduced to James Thompson when Book People’s crime connoisseur Scott Montgomery handed me a copy of Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels. Scott knows I’m a sucker for snow-covered carnage, but I don’t think he had any idea of just how much I’d love James Thompson’s work. In Snow Angels we are introduced to Inspector Kari Vaara, the chief of police in a small Finnish village (his home town). Vaara is the quiet brooding type. He hides his emotions and is loyal to the ideal of justice, which is essentially what drives him. At first I didn’t know what to think of Vaara. He’s a tough guy with a heart of gold, but so are tons of other characters in this genre, so why should I care about him?
The thing that makes Vaara unique from other characters is the way he justifies his actions and the lengths he will go to protect his loved ones. He’s not a crooked cop, but he will be if it means doing what’s best for his family. This creates an interesting tension within Thompson’s novels. In Snow Angels we watch Vaara investigate the brutal murder of an African Finnish movie star, and over the course of the investigation Vaara is confronted by characters from his past; including his ex-wife, his abusive father, and the memory of his dead sister. When I think of Thompson’s novels together I better understand the progression of Kari Vaara. Snow Angels is his origin story. It is where we learn his flaws, strengths, and motivations, and it’s also a way to contextualize him. This is the man as he exists now: having already gone through trauma both physical (a bum knee) and psychological. Thompson presents us with a character with a rich history, which is a smart move because it gives him plenty of content and characters to play with, and in every one of his novels he sends Vaara reeling into his own sordid past.
Vaara is not alone is his quest for justice. His wife Kate, an American, plays a vital role in both his personal and professional lives. Kari is a protector, it’s his nature, and one of the most interesting things about him is the ways in which he attempts to protect his family, sometimes with physical violence, but more often with his words. He struggles between telling Kate too much and not enough, and he constantly worries that he’s said the wrong thing when, in reality, he hasn’t. It’s a depth of character that we crime fans don’t often see, and it makes Kari Vaara that much more believable and endearing. We want the best for him, and he wants the best for his family. In Snow Angels Vaara deals with death and destruction on a massively personal level, and by the end it’s a wonder that he’s still standing on his own two feet.
After the events of Snow Angels Kari and Kate move from their desolate village to the bustling metropolis of Helsinki. In Thompson’s second novel, Lucifer’s Tears, Vaara takes a job as a homicide detective for the Helsinki Police and life finally seems to be getting back to normal, except for the excruciating headaches and insomnia he now suffers. Lucifer’s Tears is very different from Snow Angels. Sure, the protagonist is the same, but by changing the setting from quiet village to major city Thompson opens up the scope of his imagination and really excels. Don’t get me wrong, Snow Angels is absolutely wonderful and necessary in the series, but Thompson seems to hit his stride as an author in Lucifer’s Tears. The characters he introduces are more complex, the crimes are more inventive, and the added historical information adds so much depth to the novel it’s hard to imagine he was content writing about a tiny little Finnish village.
I think of Lucifer’s Tears as the start of Kari Vaara series, while Snow Angels is more like a prequel. The events of Lucifer’s Tears introduce us to a lot of characters who will play vital roles in Thompson’s third novel, Helsinki White, thus further giving it that feeling of true beginning. Snow Angels is about Vaara and Lucifer’s Tears and Helsinki White are about Vaara and his friends and family in Helsinki. They are worlds away from each other in both tone and scope and, in my opinion, are better written. Just as Lucifer’s Tears outshined Snow Angels, so too does Helsinki White outshine its predecessor.
Helsinki White is by far my favorite of Thompson’s novels, but if you think you can just skip the first two and go straight for number three you are sorely mistaken. I love Helsinki White because it continues to pull at the threads from the other novels. Vaara is still haunted and there is no easy fix for what troubles him. The tension is still there, but it has been affected by the events he’s witnessed. Helsinki White is also the most socially reflective of Thompson’s novels; it deals with the growing racial tensions in modern day Finland and the attitudes toward ethnic minorities throughout Europe. The focus of Helsinki White gives it a little more punch than previous novels. It’s a subject that is close to home for American and European audiences, and it can be hard to read at times because it feels so real. It combines the classic police procedural with elements of espionage and covert tactical warfare to create something totally unique. It’s an immensely satisfying novel that I could not put down.
What I’ve enjoyed the most about the Kari Vaara novels is that each one is better than the last. Thompson is getting better with each installment. He understands his characters and knows how to write them. There is more consistency, scope, imagination, twists, and good old-fashioned carnage in every new novel, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more. I can tell that Thompson is having fun, and that makes it all the more enjoyable for me. My hope is that James Thompson will continue to grow as an author so that we readers can reap the benefit of his wonderful imagination. He may be an American, but damn if he doesn’t write Scandinavian crime better than most Scandinavians. He has an intimate knowledge and respect for the country he writes about, and it shows. Crime writers should take a cue from James Thompson and inject that same passion and love into their work, because it really does pay off in the end.