James Thompson is not Jim Thompson. The latter is the haunted literary noir icon who wrote such pulp crime fiction classics as THE KILLER INSIDE ME and SAVAGE NIGHT in the 1950s. I don't know if the former was even alive at that time. What I do know is that he was born in Kentucky, has spent the last 10 years or so living in Finland, and his prose, like Jim Thompson's, will singe the hair right off of your head.
LUCIFER'S TEARS, the second Inspector Kari Vaara novel, takes place approximately one year after the devastating events of SNOW ANGELS, the book that introduced Vaara to the world. He and his very pregnant wife, Kate, have relocated from Kittila in North Finland (which was left a killing ground partly due to Vaara's actions) to Helsinki, where Vaara has undertaken his new position with the city's homicide unit. Vaara is not enamored with the move, given that Helsinki is the site of many unpleasant and unhappy childhood memories for him.
Two things happen almost immediately. First, Vaara is tasked with investigating Arvid Lahtinen, a Finnish hero of World War II who stands accused of war crimes. The Finnish government has a vested interest in a conclusion that the man is innocent, as does Vaara, whose grandfather was a member of the same security police unit as Lahtinen. Secondly, Vaara is assigned to a murder investigation that has been predetermined by his superiors as an open-and-shut case. The mutilated body of a woman is discovered in the bed of her lover, who himself has been battered into unconsciousness. Vaara essentially has been ordered to arrest the guy, even though it is all but certain that he was attacked himself. The deceased woman's husband is a well-known Russian construction contractor with a reputation for ruthlessness and an eye for the ladies --- indeed, he is seen with his girlfriend out and about, even as his wife is assuming room temperature --- and exhibits a blasé attitude toward police questioning and the insinuation of his own guilt.
Vaara is riddled with guilt over what he did and didn't do in Kittila and the results, which included the deaths of his ex-wife and his sergeant, the miscarriage of his twins, and the wounds he sustained that have left both physical and emotional scars. Then there are the headaches he's having, which are almost blinding in their ferocity. Worse, he is assigned a rookie partner for the murder investigation, an egotistical but brilliant investigator named Milo Nieminen, who is as driven as he is and has even more screws loose. Vaara can barely control himself, let alone Nieminen, and the two of them together are loose cannons with a purpose.
Surprises abound, and Vaara experiences no succor at home, where his wife's sister and brother have arrived --- complete with their own secrets --- from the United States to help with the imminent arrival of the new baby. The investigations proceed along twin tracks, only to intersect suddenly. Both are resolved, though at some cost.
None of the above, of course, speaks to the rough and dark beauty of Thompson's prose, which is not for the faint-hearted. His picture of Helsinki is that of a dirty winter with an unrelenting and grim cold that reflects the mood of the protagonist. Then there's the violence and the sex, meted out in equal measure (and, in some instances, simultaneously). The result is some of the best crime fiction you are liable to encounter in this or any year. Be warned, though. LUCIFER'S TEARS will leave you asking, "Stieg? Stieg who?" Strongly recommended, and I mean it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 4, 2011