switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Snow Angels

Snow Angels by James Thompson
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Feb 26, 2011

really liked it

If you are primarily a crime fiction buff who thrives on putting pieces of the puzzle together in a case, then you will not be overly impressed with the outcome of this series debut. If (as I imagine) you have read countless novels on murder cases, you may wince at the immodest and implausible coincidences (even for a small town!) that occur. You will embrace the noir, Arctic atmosphere of Finland during its most glacial and darkest time of year, known as Kaamos, or polar night (as cold as -40 degrees). The lean, sinewy prose will hook you in immediately. But will that be enough to sustain a veteran private-eye reader? Probably not. The climax is a bit overwrought and will cast a long, thin shadow over the landscape of this book. However, you will appreciate the solid, rich forensics as well as the ever-engaging Inspector Kari Vaara and his American wife, Kate. Their relationship draws you in, and the residents of this provincial Finnish town are vivid and stark and chillingly felt. But the payoff for a crime-novel enthusiast may inspire a few dreaded eye-rolls.

So why the four-stars? Because, although I do love an intrepid, byzantine murder mystery (and would have given it five stars if this were more the case here), I am even more devoted to a scintillating, character-driven story where the prose sparkles like stars in an inky sky and falls like accumulating snowflakes. In short, James Thomson delivers a haunting, icy tale of a fascinating, bleak population largely unfamiliar to most North Americans. He writes with empathy and wit, and with a fresh, clear, effortlessly engaging style. He penned a moving profile of the inhabitants north of the Arctic Circle and a story of their inner lives, as well as the reverberation of a shameful tragedy on their customary isolation and repression.

The Finnish culture and environment is lucidly characterized--the language, topography, relationships, and sociological underpinnings. The reader becomes educated into the silent, bottled-up nature of the townspeople and the heavy toll--religious, political, and personal--that the murder and mutilation of a beautiful Somalian actress bequeaths. Much of the population is alcoholic, due to the seasonal darkness, the bitter temperatures, and the attendant isolation. This is certainly true of the hinterlands of Vaara's jurisdiction. The confined community is under the influence of either the strict, almost medieval manifestation of the Laestadian church or the allure of its many bars. The suppressed racial and sexual tensions drive the story further forward while class and ethnic distinctions hover. Thomson does this organically, without ever pontificating. The writing stays lustrous with an economy of words that create sharp, striking images. Additionally, the private history and agonies of Inspector Vaara are sensitively and smartly portrayed by Thomson.

I am equally fascinated by the biography of this American-born author. Raised in Kentucky, he studied and is fluent in both Finnish and Swedish, and he has actually lived in Finland for the past decade. He has forged a colorful life with many professions, including (but not limited to) photographer, bartender, bouncer, and soldier. It is evident from his narrative that he has an intimate grasp of the convoluted and insular complexion of this region. I was also piqued by the attendant struggles of Kate and her difficulty acclimating to this culture and climate. This added a frothy antagonism to the story.

This is the first in a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Vaara, and I am confident that the seemingly preposterous coincidences are confined to this debut. I suspect that the agenda here was to introduce Kari and Kate, to add subtext to the terrain, and to heighten the admixture of the Inspector's personal biography with the behavior and mores of the people he routinely investigates. Like Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow and Karin Fossum's The Water's Edge and The Indian Bride (Inspector Sejer Mysteries), this murder mystery is a thrilling vehicle but not an end in itself. The deeper exploration is of individuals and societies--how a harrowing murder affects a socially parochial, Arctic town, and how its citizens operate in these frigid, insular conditions.
3 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Snow Angels.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.