I was very excited when I first heard about this author. Like so many other people I have been thrilled with the recent translation of so many of the Scandinavian authors. With the exception of a few books by writers like Peter Hoeg or Henning Mankell I hadn't been able to get my Scandi-fix until the last couple years.
I had noticed that there was a gap on the shelf for Finnish authors. I snapped up this first of the Maria Kallio series and started reading before I had even left the post office parking lot. The first couple of pages (no spoiler here) were a humorous description of a hangover that had me laughing out loud.
After that I dumped the rest of my errands and headed home to dig in.
Wellllll.... I didn't find the rest of the book lived up to the prologue.
Here is what I mean: the writing seemed wooden and strangely dated (and not just back to 1993, the time when it was initially published in Finland). The phraseology was something you'd find in the head of Sam Spade, not a 20-something law student in 1993. Or maybe I'm wrong-- maybe everyone in Finland in 1993 spoke like they had just tumbled out of a Dash Hammett book from the 1930s.
The reason this book got 4 rather than 3 stars out of me was because of the fascinating backdrop of Finland and Finnish life.
Firstly-- everyone appears to know everyone else in Finland (hey, it's a country of only 5.4 million, I guess it's possible)
Secondly-- the fact that everyone gets such whopping vacations over there is something I've known for a while. What was startling was the fact that they might have to hire part-time police officers to cover the vacation breaks. I worked as a prosecutor. If you could get a day off you were some kind of miracle worker. As far as I knew, the same was pretty much true with a lot of the cops I knew. If you were scheduled for trial or testifying in which you had handled the arrest you were at the mercy of the court setting the docket. You were going nowhere for weeks at a time. Not so in Finland, where they hire a temp for you when you leave....
Thirdly-- I liked Maria. I enjoyed riding around in her head and thought some of her observations were not only amusing but interesting to think about. However, I thought the author was trying a bit too hard with elements of her personality. I get it already, she's dinky, but tough and she can hang with the big boys.
Unfortunately, the stiff and wooden prose and dialogue just seemed to get in the way much of the time. The story is nothing new, but good enough. But the characters of the people involved in the murder investigation are underdeveloped and downright irritating a lot of the time. At some points in the story Maria seems to remember some of the people quite well, and at others the writing makes you wonder.
The murder mystery element of this book was just okay. I loved reading about life in Finland (not the information the average tourist would usually get) and I was busting for a good soak in a sauna and a bottle of the hard stuff by the end of it. I may give the next book in the series a try when it comes out, but I'll not be on tenterhooks until then.
Translated books bring unique difficulties. What is the author's real voice? How much is the translator's voice? Was a sentence supposed to be literal or ironic? In addition, the book is written in first person, another difficulty, and the narrator doles out information in an odd manner. Bits of relevant clues appear in retrospect or are denied to the reader altogether.
The cover of the book calls it a "thriller," which it is not. The murder mystery can be solved before the ending and is the result of patient fact-finding rather than moments of danger. In fact, the murder case seems incidental. This is really a trying-to-come-of-age novel about the 20-somethings of Finland. I found the non-mystery elements quite interesting and enjoyable.
Seeing how the youth of Finland feel their way to adulthood through education, required military/civic service, massive student debt, and existential questions was diverting. Contrary to my expectations, Finnish society seems very chauvanistic. The food sounds abominable -- the police station cafeteria serves liver casserole, vegetable soup in milk broth, and rice filling baked in a rye crust. Maybe it sounded better in Finnish and translated horribly.
There are some places that footnotes or explanations for English-speakers would be helpful. A game called "kyykka" was mentioned a number of times. I finally looked it up. Kyykka is a traditional Finnish game like skittles or lawn bowling. It nearly died out in all but remote villages, but has made a revival, especially among university students who enjoy flinging a board across gravel or ice at the opponents' standing wooden cylinders.
If I were to read another book in this series, it would be to see if Maria, the young detective, matures, sets goals, or even takes the giant step of owning a cat.
I am no great expert in Finno-Scandinavian crime fiction. I've seen most of the Wallander TV series starring Kenneth Branagh (bleak and despairing, but highly recommended), and I've read one of the source novels. Other than that, I'm only familiar with one other Nordic police procedural, and this series debut from Finland. There seem to be some common strands, though, that are in stark counterpoise to the Anglo-American traditions. Most notably, murders are regarded by the police with horror and repugnance, rather than jaded acceptance (accompanied by stiff upper lips or Lennie Briscoe-style quips). They are evidently comparatively rare enough in these northern countries to still be viewed as shockingly disturbing breaches of the social order, to the point where they're almost unfathomable when outside the context of drunken brawling or gang violence. Based on the way the officers react in these books, I am sometimes reminded of the line from the movie "Demolition Man": "We're the police! We're not trained to handle this sort of violence!"
Secondarily, the protagonists spend a lot of time thinking about how they hate their jobs, yearning for the day they can quit. That's markedly true of this book's heroine, who in some ways is almost a rookie and yet already wants out. Thirdly, none of these novels have much in the way of the Angry Captain shouting at the detectives to make arrests, or the Schmoozing Insider telling them that the commissioner wants this case closed quickly and quietly. Indeed, what I see as one of the hallmarks of the Scandinavian procedurals is the complete flexibility the inspectors have, free of bureaucratic interference, pressure from the brass, or any major oversight, to the degree that many of the investigators feel free to go wandering off in the middle of the afternoon to suck down a beer or two in the name of "thinking" about the crime. (Although to be fair, England's Inspector Morse was never too averse from the latter.)
With that being said: a former police officer has made a temporary return to the force to help fill some short-term manpower crunches. She gets assigned a case regarding the murder of a young man who was found dead at shoreside villa owned by his parents, with the suspects being his fellow members of an amateur college choir. Despite the fact that the protagonist actually knew the victim and socialized significantly in the past with half of the suspects, she's left in charge of the investigation with no fears of a conflict of interest or of being too close to the principals. Making her job more difficult is that most of her fellow officers view policing as a man's job, and so at best they are rudely indifferent to her while at worst they are obstructionist and patronizing.
There are definitely seeds planted here for some interesting conflicts, but our lead character is so thoroughly morose, unhappy, unrooted, and aimless that she is never in the slightest sympathetic but instead comes across as an infuriating slacker drifting through life. She's largely estranged from her own family because she can't identify with them, she hates policework, she has no idea what to be when she grows up, and she's completely alone, with no friends, acquaintances, part-time lovers, or even pets. If she had a traumatic backstory to explain why she was such a depressive loner, that would be one thing. But mainly she comes across as a spoiled brat with unrealistic expectations.
The mystery itself, at any rate, has several layers of complexity, and the author does nicely tie together several narrative threads at the end. Ultimately, though, the novel sinks under the weight of a completely unearned world-weariness that just isn't becoming in a well-educated middle-class twenty-something. But then, who picks up mystery novels from this corner of the world and expects a bunch of wacky hijinks?
This book was recommended by a friend. A very quick read and only $2.99 as an e-reader. While looking up the author, I found this first translation from the Finnish mystery is over twenty years old! That explains a great deal.
The novel is categorized as a mystery, and it really is not. The plot line is easy to guess. A young woman, Maria Kallio, short, red headed with impossible hair, but by all accounts, very attractive is the lead detective. Now, this is surprising. The woman is a temporary detective, trying to figure out if the law or police work is her calling. This is her first murder, and it has come to her because of two reasons. 1. Her boss is an alcoholic and cannot be counted upon for much. 2. Her immediate superior is ready to start vacation. By all accounts this would not fly in any other police station, but, here we are.
A group of choir singers meet to practice at the summer house of the family of one of them, Tommi. As the book opens, Tommi is found dead. Maria tells the story in her own way, she interviews the singers, some of whom she knew when they were students together. Now, this should disqualify her from the get go, but, no, off she goes. Maria spends the rest of the book trying to investigate them. She is also very interested in the victim and his colleagues and family. Each chapter is headed with a line from the poem quoted in the preface, and, as we come to find out, they are relevant to the murder case. This part of the novel was very clever, but easily missed.
Maria is not a good detective from the start. First, she allows all of the singers to congregate together before she interviews them. After an initial, very primitive interview, she allows them all to leave and to take their belongings before the investigation of the house is complete. No mention of using gloves and any method of removing clues and artifacts. Her interviewing techniques are not good nor solid. The singers are patronizing, and to be frank, I did not find Maria to be an interesting protagonist. Too young and immature in my opinion.
I did enjoy the glimpses into,Finnish life, the food, the culture, and the lifestyle. This is not a true mystery but one of who committed this crime? Maybe, because I am a true mystery/police procedural aficionado, I did not appreciate the simplicity of this novel. It seems amateurish to me. There may be more to this series, but I am not sure I would continue with it.
Recommended with reservations. prisrob 01-14-13
on March 6, 2015
Like several other reviewers, I am a Scandie crime freak who jumped a a chance to read an offering from Finland -- something of an empty quarter in the teeming landscape of Nordic crime. And, like several other reviewers, I was underwhelmed, at least at first. Nobody, to begin with, seemed that much interested in the murder of the very attractive and sucessful son of a prominent family -- no screaming headlines, no senior police officials, no slamming shut of the borders, no MENACE. Instead, a rookie detective is assigned, the father clearly wants it to be an accident, and the friends of the victim move on with their lives with hardly a pause. Eventually, the detective does solve the crime, but there isn't much drama in the process.
Still and all, I liked it better by the time I finished than I did for the first fifty pages or so. The Finnish setting is definitely interesting -- peoples' attitudes are very different from American attitudes in some key ways, and so are the ways they live their lives. The food sounds, er, interesting too. And the detective sort of grew on me -- she is a pain, but she does have an inner life. Also, I wonder if a good deal of the problem with the book -- its overall flat tone -- isn't an issue of translation. At the end, I decided to download the next volume in the series, and give Maria another chance.
First Line: Riki woke up to a vicious call of nature.
It was supposed to be a fun weekend for the choir group at Tommi Peltonen's seaside Helsinki villa. Instead Tommi is found floating facedown in the water off the dock, a victim of what is soon determined to be murder. It is up to rookie detective Maria Kallio to focus on the choir members in an attempt to solve her very first murder case. It doesn't take long for her to realize that what on the surface appears to be a happy and close-knit group is really a collection of young people filled with bitterness, passion and jealousy. It will take a lot of digging for her to find the killer.
As much as I wanted to like this book, I simply could not. Too many things just did not add up. First, a rookie cop is put in charge of the murder investigation into the death of the son of a high-profile family. Yes, all her superiors are on some sort of leave or vacation, but why should that let the police put someone in charge who isn't even sure she wants to be a detective? One of Kallio's supervisors is a well-known drunk who often takes personal days to sleep off his latest bender. The other has taken vacation simply because he's sick and tired of doing all the drunk's work. This does not inspire much faith in East Helsinki's police force.
The pace of the book also drags quite a bit. There are several digressions while Kallio and the others are pulled away from the murder investigation to take care of other crimes. Although I know this happens in real life, these interruptions really impede the flow of the narrative-- to the point where I almost started shaking the book and telling the author to get a move on.
Maria Kallio talks a lot in the book. Too much of it is about her indecision over whether or not she should commit to a career in law enforcement. (Many times it sounds as though she thinks law enforcement is beneath her.) Once again I nearly began speaking to the book to tell Maria that, if she's so undecided, maybe she should resign and let someone else take over the investigation. I never really got any glimpses into her thought processes or how she was trying to solve the murder. By book's end it appeared that she just talked to all the choir members until she fell into the solution. Maria was a character who did not hold my interest-- and neither did any of the others.
All in all, I was very disappointed in this book. Even the Finnish setting was rather generic. Since it's the first book in a long-running series, I have to think that the books that follow show a great deal of improvement. However... I don't think I want to test this theory.
When the playboy in the college student music group of friends is bludgeoned by axe on a rehearsal retreat at a sumptuous home owned by the family member of one of the singers, you are introduced to the rooky woman detective who must find out who did it, despite her past friendship with many in that music group. In a low- key almost emotionally flat way Mario Kallio, the lead character pulled me slowly into the story. As someone with Danish ancestry I found Finland author, Leena Lehtolainen's writing style familiar and too dry at first yet, by the end of the story I cared for her and found the threads of the mystery tied in a tidy bow at the end.
But the early details of the murder didn't foreshadow what was to come and only one other character seemed fleshed out, Tommi Peltonen - the person who was murdered. There is little action except that of the detective going from place to interview suspects. I really wanted to love this book yet the sparse details made it hard for me to picture the scenes, or the characters nor grasp the tone meant in the dialogue or musings by the police woman yet she is described on the book cover as "Finland's bestselling female crime author" so I might well be in the minority with this reaction to the book.
on April 27, 2013
This was the very first book of this author that I have ever read. A member of a choir group is found murdered, the police officer was friends with some of the members, and she is assigned to the case, and has to question many of her friends. You can see the fine line drawn between the being a friend bit, and being the invesitgative officer. You know all the suspects right away, there are no surprises or twists. This was light, and an easy read. I just wish there was a bit more depth with the characters. I personally like more of a puzzle, but don't cross this off your list.
on November 12, 2014
My First Murder is My First Finnish book. As a big fan of Scandinavian Noir, I had never gone to Finland and I'm happy I chose this book. I was a little confused by the names of the characters (my fault, not the fault of the Finnish language), but once I got started, I couldn't put it down. Writing in the first person is trickier to pull off, but in this case it worked for me. Maria Kallio is an engaging character, with her insecurities and pet peeves about being a woman in a man's profession, I really wanted her to do well, even when she's making mistakes or being insecure about her talents. The mystery develops nicely, and I never saw the culprit coming. I have already downloaded the second book in the series.
on January 11, 2013
For a first book, it is just OK, that's all. A thriller it is not. I don't care for thrillers so that part was OK with me. In my opinion none of the characters was sufficiently developed to make me care anything about them. Maria Kallio, the fill-in detective, was immature and unsure of herself despite the position of trust she was placed in. The character can't well represent the Finnish police force, can it? The plot was slow and plodding. The crime could have been solved in half the number of pages or less. It took me weeks to finish it. Being of Finnish heritage myself and close to the culture, I knew about the rice-filled rye flour pastries, "Karelian piirakka". They're good. You can make any number of fillings for them. But I've never heard of the "kyykka" game. It should have been explained. All that being said and because I know it isn't easy to get a first book published, I'll give the author a break and order another of Lehtolainen's books. I see another is scheduled for release in May 2013. There must be more to this author because this series was made into a popular TV series in Finland. I love reading translated Nordic books particularly with Finnish and northern Swedish settings since I have been there.