My rating: 4 of 5 stars
American author James Thompson’s Helsinki White (G.P. Putnam Sons 2012) is as much about Finnish politics as it is about heroine, crime, and catching the bad guys with unorthodox methods. What caught my attention when I selected the novel was that it’s based in Finland, a country that isn’t often the setting for detective stories, and it’s told from the first person present tense of Inspector Kari Vaara, a Finnish law enforcement officer. I know nothing about what drives Finland’s government, economics or culture, so was fascinated by this peek behind the curtains. Since Vaara is married to an American, I got explanations throughout the story of what was Finnish and how it differed from America.
Briefly, Vaara is asked to lead a black ops group tasked with turning the tide of a crime wave sweeping the country. Funding for this endeavor comes from money they steal from the criminals. The only rule: Succeed. There are no limits on how. Vaara’s rogue group is so successful and so discreet that the criminals start fighting each other in an effort to stop the crime busters. This escalates and sparks political consequences that were never imagined when the group was formed. As the personal danger increases, Vaara realizes that his only way out is to solve the political roots and hope he survives.
Much of the book deals with a graphic display of the violence and racial hatred that were both cause and result of the group’s operations. I was startled by how far Vaara veered from ‘legal’ to catch his bad guys. I would have found it hard to believe a law enforcement officer could swing that far to the dark side except that Thompson set Vaara up early in the story with a brain injury that erased his emotions, and conceivably his conscience. As a result, the book offers some intriguing insights into the human condition–“Nothing has intrinsic meaning. We give meaning to the things important to us”. Plus, the story’s supporting characters are fully as warped as Vaara becomes, reveling in the crime and violence they commit without any barometer for how far off center they are. Overall, these characters are not the sort I would hang out with. Vaara seems to figure out that he’s gone too far when he says,
“So, between January 26th, the day I asked Kate [his wife] if I could become a more effective cop, a man empowered to truly help people by bending the rules of engagement in the war against crime, and today… I’ve gone from, if not a paragon of virtue, a cop who mostly observed the rules governing my profession, to a man who has no qualms about breaking any law, committing almost any act, to achieve my own ends.”
As the book progresses, it focuses more on the racism that seemed to be drowning Finland. Though Vaara isn’t racist, he does an expert job of sharing the vileness of the extreme xenophobic Finnish groups and enveloping you in their evil taste and feel.
Overall, this is a unique approach to the noir crime stoppers genre, made even more so by a strong author with the ability to weave a fast-moving, intricate plot that never lets you go. I recommend it, with the reservation that its themes are in-your-face. If you’re weak of stomach, you might want to skip it.
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.