US crime author has dark take on Finnish society
In the doorway of a Helsinki bar on a snowy December afternoon, American author James Thompson is being offered a pair of Russian army night vision goggles that may - or may not - have fallen off the back of a truck.
The author, a Kentucky native who's lived in Finland for the past 15 years, has recently signed a new deal with publisher Putnam that puts his Inspector Kari Vaara series in U.S. bookstores through 2015.
Thompson buys the goggles and the vendor shuffles off into the snow. It's the sort of deal in the sort of neighborhood that Vaara would approve of, and it's somewhat apropos that the Hilarious Pike bar is a regular haunt of both the writer and the fictional cop.
Thompson's style is on the dark end of the "Nordic Noir" spectrum. The genre - with its stark and often violent police procedurals - has proved wildly successful for publishers and filmmakers alike.
The marquee names have come from Sweden - think Stieg Larsson's "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," or Henning Mankell's "Wallander" series - but Norway's Jo Nesbo and Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir have also made their mark with international readers.
Thompson stands out from that crowd by writing in English and telling Vaara's gritty narrative in the first person.
"My entire vision of writing books set in Finland was to demonstrate what the world is like moment to moment in the mind of an average Finnish man," Thompson says over cups of coffee. "The best way to do that was to narrow that lens of his thoughts."
The three books published so far - "Snow Angels," "Lucifer's Tears," and "Helsinki White" - chart Vaara's journey from small-town Lapland sheriff to big-city Helsinki detective, black-ops thug and finally master criminal.
Along the way Vaara acquires sidekicks that include a fetishist policeman and an attempted double murderer and his team manages to fit in a brisk trade in blackmail, illegal guns and drug deals while solving crimes.
Thompson's secondary characters are certainly larger than life, though it's hard to imagine the plethora of brazenly corrupt government ministers, sex perverts and drug cabals inhabiting a country like Finland, which is regularly ranked at the top of clean government indices.
Yet Finland itself shares the character spotlight throughout the series. Its quirky off-beat foibles mean Vaara can't be transplanted to another location without sacrificing Finnish concepts, landscapes and people.
"All I'm doing is writing traditional Finnish stories," says Thompson, 48. "This is the land of sad songs and what I write is simply repeating the themes that have dominated Finnish literature and music forever."
Married to a Finnish woman, Thompson moved to the Nordic country after serving in the U.S. military and working in construction. He held jobs as a bouncer and bartender before studying for a master's degree at Helsinki University and becoming a writer.
Finns may find his themes familiar, but as a foreigner, Thompson can also broach subjects that are uncomfortable or mildly taboo in Finnish society: Immigration, Nazi collaboration during World War II, race relations or right-wing politics.
"I discuss things that other people don't discuss or don't see," he says.
That has brought him some online flak from Finland's political right. It probably doesn't help that some of his most despicable villains seem to be thinly veiled caricatures of well-known politicians or businessmen.
Jukka Petaja, a novelist and literary critic at the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, said many Finns don't agree with the image of Finland that Thompson portrays.
"But it doesn't prevent readers from enjoying books by him," Petaja said. "Having some distance from Finland, Jim Thompson can also see some phenomenon even clearer than many Finns."
Thompson insists he doesn't write "to send political or social messages" but like Finland's national poet Johan Runeberg, his books are filled with characters and plots that do just that.
Even Thompson's leading man Vaara, whose name can be translated as "Stone Danger," seems to be a nod to Runeberg's 19th-century protagonists who had heroic yet simple surnames that supposedly reflected their honesty and valor.
Thompson's characters side with the common man. The crimes of everyman characters are dismissed with a sentence or two of forgiving prose: alcoholism leading to child abuse, casual spousal violence, multiple fatal stabbings. The crimes of the rich, the powerful and the politically connected, however, are treated more seriously, and Vaara's disdain for Finland's elite is often barely disguised.
The pub's heavily tattooed barman dutifully refills Thompson's coffee, but there's also a bottle of vodka in the freezer with the author's name on it. Not surprisingly, Vaara likes to chase his beers with a shot of vodka too.
"There's a part of the author in every character," Thompson says.
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