Leighton Gage's Reviews > Helsinki White

Helsinki White by James Thompson
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Jul 08, 12

Read in January, 2012

"There’s a great myth believed by nearly everyone that Finland is corruption-free. Police and politicians are scripture pure, dedicated to the good of the nation beyond all things. Foreigners even write about it in travel guides for tourists." That’s Kari Vaara, telling us about his country in the first pages of James Thompson’s new novel, Helsinki White. Shortly thereafter, he goes on to say, "I run a heist gang. I’m a police inspector, shakedown artist, strong-arm specialist and enforcer…Three months ago, I was an honest cop."

What a way to kick-off a book!

Snow Angels, James Thompson’s first novel to feature Vaara as a protagonist, was named by Booklist as one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010 and was nominated for both an Edgar and an Anthony.

His second, Lucifer’s Tears, was included in Kirkus’s List of the Best Novels of 2011. And anyone who knows Kirkus also knows that they’re the toughest critics that ever there were – or are.

Now, Thompson has given us the third in his series, Helsinki White -- and it's as cool as a Nordic wind.

As the book begins, Vaara’s personal life is bittersweet: on the positive side, he’s a new dad, deeply in love with his American wife, Kate, and infant daughter Anu; on the negative, he continues to suffer from paralyzing headaches, is haunted by his past exploits and is obsessed by thoughts about the type of man he has become.

Meanwhile, his professional life keeps getting worse: He and his boss, Jyri Ivalo, are polar (no pun intended) opposites. The National Chief of Police is as corrupt and twisted as they come. Vaara, on the other hand, is an essentially moral man who sees his position in the police as a path to doing good, perhaps the only thing he’s qualified for in the doing-good department.

The men hate each other, and the Chief would fire Vaara if he could.

But Vaara has something on him that would destroy the Chief’s career.

And despite the fact that the rot doesn’t stop with Ivalo, despite the fact that his principal assistant, a man he can’t get rid of, is a sociopath, despite the fact that he’s been put in charge of a clandestine unit which has been specifically created to function outside the law, Vaara wants to stay on.

Couldn’t get any worse, you think?
Then you don’t know James Thompson.

Before the first chapter is out, Vaara discovers his headaches are being caused by a brain tumor.
You might conclude, from the little I’ve told you, that Helsinki White isn’t a cheerful book.
Well, you’d be right there. But it’s a fascinating one, superbly written and full of insights about Thompson’s adopted country. Take this one, about drinking:

"It’s May second, a sunny Sunday…The outdoor bars are packed…Yesterday was Vappu – May Day, the heaviest drinking holiday of the year – and most of these people have been drunk non-stop, morning to night, since they got off from work on Friday."

Or this one, a scene that takes place on a tram:

"Two elderly women, one on a walker, asked the driver, a black immigrant, a question about where to get off to reach her destination. He answered in accented but understandable Finnish. The two grannies sat in front of me and spoke in loud voices, to make certain he could hear, and discussed how the (racial epithet deleted) ought to learn to speak the (expletive deleted) language. The grannies garnered guffaws."

Note: both the racial epithet and the expletive add flavor, and the anecdote can’t be fully appreciated without them, but this review wouldn’t be published in certain venues if I’d left them in.

And how about this unpleasant truth: "Here in Finland and the surrounding countries, thousands of gangsters orchestrate the buying and selling of young girls, and hundreds or thousands of those girls pass through this nation every year…"

Corruption, crooked cops, racism; wholesale exploitation of minors; not what you imagined Finland to be like, is it?
No, Me neither.
White slavery issues play the most prominent roles in Helsinki White, but there are a lot of other things going on as well: the unsolved kidnapping of a billionaire’s children; the murder of a Swedish-speaking Finn, a champion of immigrants’ rights; the drug trade; Vaara’s blooming relationship with Arvid Lahtinen and the increasingly-sinister role of Adrien Moreau.

Talk about rich characters! Lahtinen is a war hero, wanted for extradition by the Germans. Arvid knew Vaara’s grandfather during the war. They killed men together. And Moreau is a French policeman, Finnish by birth, who spent fifteen years in the French Foreign Legion, exercised his right as a Legionnaire and took French citizenship and identity.

There’s only one thing wrong with Helsinki White: it’s too short. And, if it was twice as long, it would still be too short. It’s a first-class crime novel, and I don’t think it will harm your enjoyment of the book to share the words Thompson uses to conclude the final chapter. By then, the mysteries have been cleared-up and (most of) the bad guys have gotten their just deserts.

"June twenty-sixth is mid-summer’s eve, the third anniversary of Kate and my first meeting. On the twenty-fourth, I text Kate, ask her if she would like to spend our anniversary together. She doesn’t reply.
"Except for our two disastrous dinners, I’ve seen no one since I went into self-imposed isolation. I call my brother Timo. He’s having a party. He invited me a while ago, and I ask if I can still come. Sure.
"I go, get whacked on Timo’s pontikka, eat grilled sausages. They light the bonfire at midnight. I get a text from Kate. 'I miss you.' I don’t think she wants a reply. I put the phone back in my pocket, have a long drink from my glass of pontikka, and watch the flames climb higher."

Where will the author take Kate and Kari Vaara from here? Has Thompson backed himself into a corner with their relationship? I hope not.

But we’re going to have to wait a year to find out.
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