Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Review of "Snow Angels" [27]

Snow Angels (An Inspector Vaara Novel) by James Thompson
Berkley Trade, ISBN 978-0425238837
February 1, 2011, 304 pages

"My worst fears are confirmed. This is a hate crime. It's hard to believe that anyone could have hated her so much. The question, despite the words carved on her stomach, is what could have inspired this kind of hatred? Was it her race, her beauty, or something else?"
In most places, Christmas is a festive time of year. But in the northern most region of Finland, above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, it is also Kaamos, a time of complete darkness and a degree of cold most of us can only imagine. It is also a time of a great deal of drunkenness, suicides and a very high homicide rate. As one character says in the book, as high as American cities.

When Inspector Kari Vaara gets called to the scene of a murder, a body found in a reindeer field, very near to the small group of houses where he grew up, that may be the sort of thing he expects, some drunken brawl that resulted in a death. But it is not what he finds. The victim is a young woman, a very beautiful Somali immigrant, an actress in some minor movies. Her body is horrible mutilated, probably sexually assaulted, with a racial epitaph carved in the skin of her stomach.
Quickly, suspicions fall very close to home, to the common law husband of Varra's ex-wife. He knows that he should recuse himself from the investigation, agree for a team to be flown in from Helsinki, but he does not and sets in motion a chain of events which will leave a swath of violence and stick very close to home.

Well, what to say about this book?
First, if I were on the Finnish tourist board, I would not want people to be reading this. The author, while American, has lived in Finland for over a decade, but you have to wonder how accurate his view is. If I skied, this would not be at the top of my list of winter destinations. The portrait it paints, of this area in particular and some aspect of the Finn culture in general, are not too pretty.  As Varra's American wife Kate, who is the manager of the local sky resort says,
"When I first arrived here, my picture of Finland was different. Nature and the environment seemed wild and beautiful, life seemed orderly. I thought people were happy...
No, I was wrong. This is an ugly place. The silence, the misery, the months of darkness. It's too extreme, like living in a desert made of snow instead of sand."
Maybe not an ideal place for most of us to live, but a great setting for a murder..or two!

I will warn you. This book is dark and violent, with several very graphic scenes and frequent repetitions of racist language. If you like your mysteries with a gritty edge, I think you will like this one very much. A cozy mystery this is not.  But in creating a certain mood, a certain bleak and desperate setting where these terrible events can unfold, it succeeds very well.  It's very well written, it's clean, direct style perfect for the setting. And at moments we get a brief glimpse of why Vaara loves his home.
Here the sky is arched, and there’s almost no pollution. In spring and fall the sky is a dark blue or violet, and sunsets last for hours. The sun turns into a dim orange ball that transforms clouds into silver-rimmed red and violet towers. In winter, twenty-four hours a day, uncountable stars outline the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral we live in. Finnish skies are the reason I believe in God.
As to the characters, Inspector Vaara is not he easiest man to like, or the easiest policeman to admire. Quite honestly, he seems way over his head, the investigation disorganized and the final solution as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. 
But...he gains points for be self aware enough to know that and his sincere affection for his wife Kate and their unborn twins is enough to give me hope in him. Tragic and flawed, with a good heart...the perfect noir hero.

This is the first book in a series, the second, Lucifer's Tears, just published this month, and I for one will be very interested in seeing if the good inspector and his pregnant wife make it though the bleak, long winter.


  1. Not a good advertisement, is it? But I have heard about what it is like to live up there, and I guess I'm impressed the author didn't sugar-coat it. I'm surprised that anyone would live there that wasn't born there. I would probably like this book...like my thrillers gritty.

  2. no, not really.
    and yet Kari loves it, for reasons that are hard to understand...his wife, not so much.

    I think you would like it!

  3. I had heard about this book and I think the consensus was about the same as yours - a very good, gritty mystery, set in an environment that most of us are not familiar with. You would think it would be more appealing, but I keep going back to that whole complete darkness thing. I think I've read that there's some of the same problems in places like Alaska. And then in the summer, it never gets dark and that would be another sort of problem.

    I'll try this one because while I like a good cozy, I also like the gritty side.

  4. I do like dark and gritty for some odd reason. This one really sounds good to me.

  5. Well, at least the author has at least one more book...before the Finnish Tourism Board rubs him out!


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