On their blood-spattered Grand Tour of international criminal cities, the publishers Akashic have taken readers to locations both expected (from Los Angeles Noir to Venice Noir) and unlikely (Pittsburgh Noir, anyone?). But before they get round to Wigan Noir, there are several Scandinavian destinations to follow up their sojourns in Stockholm and Copenhagen, and Helsinki Noir turns out to be one of the most ferociously readable entries in the series. Collated by James Thompson, a non-Nordic writer who moves in this frigid territory (he cheekily includes his own work here), we are given 14 gritty stories by Finnish writers, most as yet unfamiliar in the UK.
Finland – for many non-Scandinavians – remains something of a closed book, and few of the clichés that routinely spring to foreign minds about other Nordic territories present themselves in connection with this country. Finland’s independence is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the beginning of the last century, and it bears many scars from incursions by near and not-so-near neighbours (notably, of course, the Swedish presence and the subsequent Russian invasion). All of this finds its way into the country’s crime fiction — sometimes directly, sometimes subtly. However, that fiction has, as yet, made no commercial breakthrough abroad along the lines of the other Scandinavian countries – although a body of work is shaping up from a variety of Finnish writers (several of whom are represented here) that may yet fuel such a development.
The translations of the notoriously idiosyncratic Finnish language in Helsinki Noir are uniformly excellent (although some of the pieces were written in Swedish and English). The prize-winning novelist Antti Tuomainen — whose climate-change novel The Healer was chillingly prescient — contributes a diamond-hard entry, with his paranoid hero finding just how dangerous a city Helsinki can be, while Anglophile Pekka Hiltunen (who has written distinctive Nordic Noir set in London) has a ruthless criminal protagonist barely keeping his violent lieutenants in check. Thompson’s own entry is serviceable, but hardly hints at the achievement of his excellent novels. His editorial nous, however, is fully present, and he ends the volume with Johanna Holmström’s riveting ‘Stolen Lives’, which lays bare the malign undercurrents of bourgeois Finnish life.
In the final analysis, though, does Helsinki Noir tell us anything about the country in which the stories are set? There is a wide range of subject matter, but as with the violence and bloodletting of Icelandic crime fiction, the picture presented of the country here is an unrealistically dark-hued one; Thompson claims in his introduction that beneath the surface of Finnish life it is really a Noir nation in the deepest sense. But we don’t have to believe that tendentious claim to savour this pulse-racing collection.
James Thompson, editor