|For this Helsinki-based American author of noir crime fiction, incorporating less comfortable aspects of Finnish culture and history into his narratives has not dimmed the popularity of his internationally acclaimed work.|
JAMES THOMPSON is on a roll. He has just published his fourth book in four years, and reviews are glowing.
Thompson’s first book published internationally, Snow Angels, received an Edgar nomination for Best First Novel. It was also nominated for Best First Novel in the Strand Magazine Critics Award. In it, detective Kari Vaara investigates the murder of a beautiful Somali actress in Lapland.
Lucifer’s Tears, or Kylmä kuolema in Finnish, is the second in the Inspector Vaara series. Detective Kari Vaara is now in Helsinki with his American wife Kate. Her unemployed brother and right-wing fanatic sister come to visit, threatening Vaara’s domestic bliss. At work, Vaara is charged with solving the murder of a Russian businessman’s cheating wife. Simultaneously he is told by his superiors to investigate alleged war crimes of a Winter War hero. Making his task even more difficult, Vaara learns that his beloved grandfather was in the same secret police unit as the accused war criminal.
After initially being published in the Finnish language Thompson caught the eye of a powerful literary agent. Within four days the agent said he wanted to represent the American expatriate, and within two months he had deals to publish in six languages. Now Thompson will soon be published in about ten languages in approximately twenty countries. He sits in the Kämp Hotel bar, coincidently a location portrayed in his newest book, and discusses his literary career.
What would be your definition of a successful book?
It depends on your standpoint. For the publisher, it’s how many copies were sold. For the reader, it’s whether or not the book entertained you, and hopefully made you question yourself and the world around you, made you reconsider things you accepted as absolute truths and showed you life in ways you’ve never seen before. For an author, it’s a combination of these things, but also, it’s a matter of whether you told the story honestly, whether you told the truth of the story, even if it hurt or made you uncomfortable to write it. If you’ve written just to give your audience what you think they want, or held back because it was just too hard, you’re a fraud and you’ve lied to them and to yourself. For me, more than anything, ‘successful’ means writing the book I wanted or needed to write, without letting anything get between me and the story.
What kind of response have you received from the Finnish literary establishment?
In general, quite good. The major newspapers usually review my books, and that alone says a great deal, as thousands of books are published in Finland each year, and most receive no media attention whatsoever. In particular, Helsingin Sanomat, the nation’s leading newspaper, has given my work consistently positive reviews and also published articles tracking my career. I’m grateful to them for that. In general, my work has been well received and most reviews have been positive.
How have Finns reacted to you writing about Finland to an international audience?
I think that reviewers, and readers in general, often filter my books in a different way than if they had been written by a Finn. In particular, I note that the biggest criticism of my work is the way that I handle social commentary. For instance, some of the characters are hard drinkers, and I’m sometimes criticized for it, because it’s a ‘cliché’. However, a large percentage of major Finnish writers have alcoholic and depressed characters in their novels and this ‘cliché’ is rarely mentioned by reviewers. Guess why? The degree of alcohol abuse in this country is astounding – alcohol is the nation’s number one killer – so it’s not a cliché, but a simple truth. Alcohol plays a large part in Finland’s culture. However, I’m telling, you might say, the family secrets to the rest of the world, and I think it would be preferred by many if I didn’t. People sometimes ask why I choose to write graphic books that address uncomfortable social issues. The answer: I write noir crime fiction. The genre is by nature harsh and critical. A better question would be why I write noir. That would be a question for my therapist, if I had one.
I spend far more time researching than I do actually writing
What about your contribution to the world’s perception of Finland?
There’s this ‘Branding of Finland’ thing going on, trying to portray the country as some kind of paradise, and I think many would like to keep the country’s social problems – and there are many – hidden. My work is read around the world, and so people are made aware that although this is a great country, we have our problems, just like everyone else. In fact, I think my novels have created a great deal of interest and fascination with Finland, especially in the US, where many people have had no knowledge of the country at all. Some even think it’s a part of Russia. US publications have delivered reviews of my latest novel to millions of Americans, so my novels have contributed to this so-called ‘branding’, and have put Finland on the map for a lot of readers. For the record, whatever problems it may have, I think Finland is one of the best countries in the world for the average person to live in. I haven’t been here all this time for nothing.
Yet in Lucifer’s Tears you dig up some of the worst of Finland’s past, like Finnish cooperation in the German concentration camp set up in the far north, Stalag 309.
No one talked about the fact that there was a German concentration camp in Finland during the Continuation War. On Independence Day you see Kekkonen or Mannerheim documentaries on television and everyone is fascinated by the great ‘Gods’ talking. Clearly a myth had been built, and I wanted to find the truth.
The Finnish winter is practically a character in your books, but will we ever see Vaara during the summer?
Books by James Thompson
Only published in Finnish:
Jerusalemin veri, Johnny Kniga, 2008
Jumalan nimeen, Johnny Kniga, 2010
Inspector Vaara series, in English:
Snow Angels, Putnam (U.S.); Avon (U.K.) 2010
Lucifer’s Tears, Putnam (U.S); Avon (U.K.) 2011
Yep. The book I’m writing now ends in early summer.
What is it about?
The next book is about Finnish politics, tentatively entitled Helsinki White. It’s about politics and racism.
How much research goes into your novels?
A tremendous amount. I spend far more time researching than I do actually writing. As far as people helping me – sharing their expertise with me on various subjects – to put things in perspective, I’m sending a novel to each person who helped with the last book. There are 15-20 of them. In my latest book, Lucifer’s Tears, (Kylmä kuolema), two historians, Oula Silvennoinen and Aapo Roselius, experts in their fields, were invaluable to me in making sure that the aspects of the story concerning the Civil War, the Second World War, and the involvement of major figures in Finnish history in those events were handled correctly. All these people have my profound gratitude.
What about how police operate?
The police have been very generous to me. One Helsinki homicide detective – I don’t know if he wants his name mentioned – has dedicated a great deal of time and energy into teaching me police procedure. I’ve received some minor criticism by reviewers because the police in my novels often don’t do things ‘by the book.’ It’s a Finnish crime writing convention that police strictly follow procedure. However, I realised early on that there is no ‘book’ to follow. Procedure varies from city to city, department to department, and even from cop to cop. In fact, there is no Finnish police procedure handbook to follow, and I think police procedure may have been invented more by Finnish crime writers than by the police themselves. As such, I feel no obligation to have the police in my novels follow more than the most basic conventions. Because I break with convention, I think people often don’t realise the amount of research that goes into my crime stories. In fact, in the next novel in the Inspector Vaara series, I completely tear up the fictional police handbook and throw it away. There’s also a myth that no corruption exists in Finland, among police and even politicians. Come on, how naïve can you be?
Text: David Cord
Photo: Marcus Schulte