You want dark with your literature? I have some dark for you. The book is HELSINKI BLOOD, and the author is James Thompson. It should come wrapped in a shroud instead of a cover. Thompson, a native Kentuckian who now resides in Finland, covers the waterfront of noir crime fiction to a degree and manner that few can match.
Thompson’s very memorable protagonist is Kari Vaara, a Helsinki police inspector who has sustained more physical and emotional damage over the course of three novels than might otherwise reasonably be expected. While the plot that has woven over the course of those books is somewhat complex, Thompson does a good job of recapping what has gone before. As HELSINKI BLOOD, his fourth and unquestionably best novel to date, opens, the extremely bloodied but not unbowed Vaara is (barely) walking proof that money cannot buy happiness. Vaara has more money than God, and acquired the old-fashioned way: he stole it, but from people who really need to be on the receiving end of some grief. His multiple injuries, though, leave him in constant, excruciating pain and emotionally depressed. Though physically incapacitated, Vaara demonstrates early on that he is hardly helpless. It is a good thing.
"For those who picture Finland as a dull sort of place where little but fishing occurs, an afternoon with Thompson and HELSINKI BLOOD will change your waking and sleeping impressions of that country forever."
While in a mental funk over his estrangement from his wife Kate, she appears, still in an understandably fragile mental state from the events that took place in HELSINKI WHITE. She drops off their infant daughter, Anu, with him and immediately flees to the United States to live with her drug-addled brother in Florida. She does so as Vaara’s apartment is in the process of being vandalized not once, but twice. Vaara calls in help and reinforcements consisting of the deadly Sweetness and the off-kilter yet loyal Milo. He is also vacillating between (understandably) violent retaliation against those who would do him and his family harm and a desire to end the killing. As Vaara points out frequently during his first-person present narrative, that pacifism thing doesn’t always work.
Why would someone be poking the stick at the demonstrably violent yet loyal Vaara? You might recall earlier that I mentioned he had stolen quite a bit of money. The people from whom he misappropriated the funds are not the type to write it off as a business loss, and are letting Vaara know this in no uncertain terms. That is not his only concern, however. He has to deal with a request made of him by a total stranger. A neighbor, an Estonian immigrant, seeks Vaara’s help in retrieving her daughter, a young woman with Down’s syndrome who has been sold into prostitution. Then, of course, there is the matter of Kate, whom Vaara loves deeply, totally, loyally. Again, money cannot buy happiness, but it can solve the problems that come between it and that state. Indeed, Vaara uses his ill-gotten but richly deserved gain to even the considerable odds against him and to achieve significant measures of revenge and rough justice along the way.
Thompson puts one in the mind of Ken Bruen, and while the literary styles of the two men are very different, they are truly sons of different mothers, with Bruen’s Jack Taylor and Thompson’s Vaara blood cousins. At one point I literally stood up and screamed, “NO! NO! You can’t DO that!” Thompson could do it, of course, and he did. As Bruen often does, Thompson goes head first and full in where both angels and demons fear to tread. For those who picture Finland as a dull sort of place where little but fishing occurs, an afternoon with Thompson and HELSINKI BLOOD will change your waking and sleeping impressions of that country forever.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 3, 2013