There’s a statement on the cover of The Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto’s second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete: “Best Finnish Crime Novel 2014”. I’ve not read a Finnish crime novel before nor have I yet read this book’s predecessor, The Hummingbird, but, and let’s get straight to the point here: The Defenceless is one hell of a good book. Great, in fact.
At the centre of The Defenceless lies a mystery – an old man (Vilho Karppinen) dies, presumably, at the hands of a drug dealer, only for his death to be pinned on an Hungarian au-pair. Two girls stumble onto an alarmingly fresh crime scene in a forest – snow soaked in human blood, tyre tracks leading from the trees and a knife found at the scene – but missing the vital ingredient; a body. Then, one of Karppinen’s neighbours, goes missing. Is there a connection? Is it her who’s body is missing from the murder scene? Is a killer prowling the streets of this Finnish town?
Given that we’re witness to Karppinen’s demise you may be forgiven for wondering where the police investigation into his death is going at first, chiefly because it looks as though, to all intents and purposes, he died at the hands of a drug dealer in an argument over noise. It’s almost a case of waiting to see how long it takes for the Hungarian au-pair to be cleared. Yet as the story develops, Hiekkapelto skilfully weaves in more mystery and plot twists, adding intertwining sub-plots involving gangs, corruption, drugs and social commentary into an addictive, compelling novel with more questions building with each page turn; are the killings related to the violent gang that’s trying to establish itself in Finland that Fekete’s partner, Esko, is trying to snuff out? How is that gang related to the drug dealer? Are they behind the murder scene? How are the Hell’s Angels involved? Is the au-pair all that she seems?
There is a lot going on in The Defenceless, a world of story lines packed into less than 300 pages. Rubbing ink with the main case and Esko’s investigations (not to mention the ticking-clock of his health) is Anna’s own sense of isolation and removal from a homeland that no longer exists, her brother’s battle with alcohol, family illness and, of course, Sammi.
Sammi is a refugee from Pakistan, now in hiding and living rough following the rejection of his asylum claim and facing deportation to a country in which he faces persecution and death for his beliefs. Desperation leads him to increasingly extreme measures in his attempts to remain in Finland. There’s no heavy hand here, no resorting to the didactic in telling Sammi’s side of the story and the futility of his fight against blind bureaucracy, just a talented author using her art form to affectively shine light on an increasingly absurd system (one not unique to Finland) that differentiates between people and their rights to basic human existence according to the particular piece of this Earth that chance happened to place their birth. The message couldn’t be more pertinent given the humanitarian crisis facing the world today and it’s the conclusion (or non-conclusion) of that story which will stay with you beyond the final page.
With The Defenceless you’re so caught up in the characters, the sub plots and the hunt for what appears to be a brutal killer that when the killer’s identity and motive are revealed it comes like a bolt from the blue. It brings to (my) mind the reveal in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. I do hope that doesn’t serve as a spoiler, more as a nod to another gripping Scandi-noir detective series.
There’s a growing number of crime novels with a conscience out there and this ranks up there with the best, leading the charge with a heady blend of mystery, suspense and social drama that hooks from the off and doesn’t let go even when the last page is turned.
A sign of a good novelist is not seeing them in the text, if you follow me. A writer needs to disappear, to allow their characters to take centre stage, become real and express themselves rather than parroting the views and sensibilities of the author. It’s not the easiest of tasks but it’s one which Kati Hiekkapelto pulls off nicely. The Defenceless is populated by characters who are not only engrossing and fully realised but, when the narrative shifts to them, tell the story in their own way without filter – especially so in the case of the oh-so-politically-correct Esko who’s passages are so vociferous with their racial hate as to be at polar-like odds with those of the empathetic Fekete.
The translation – by David Hackston – should also receive the strongest nod of approval; at no point in reading The Defenceless was there any indication that this was anything other than the language the novel was written in and the deft translation ensures that the novel’s momentum and feel flows uninterpreted across the language transition.
While The Defenceless is the second Anna Fekete I’ve not yet read The Hummingbird and I don’t believe it’s essential to have done so to enjoy this novel – another plus – which manages to stand brilliantly on its own. That being said, it does mean that, for me, The Hummingbird is an essential ‘to read’ and I’ll now go about getting my hands on it while eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Kati Hiekkapelto – clearly an author to watch.
I was, again, delighted to be sent this book by Karen at Orenda Books (a publisher who’s first year has certainly cemented it as a purveyor of quality, original fiction) and be asked to take part in the Blog Tour. Check out the other stops and keep an eye on Crime Thriller Girl for tomorrow’s stop and – of course – read The Defenceless.