For generations, the urban legend of Granny Hatchet has plagued the quiet residential area of Suvikylä in northern Finland. As the story goes, this immortal killer murders her victims with a hatchet, then buries the hearts in a potato field and eats them after they’ve rotted black. But not everyone is convinced it is just a story.
Somewhere between horror, folk lore and social commentary, set deep in the quiet back waters of northern Finland, THE BLACK TONGUE is a book that will stay with you for a lot of reasons.
Not being much of a fan of horror stories, it's hard to explain why this book appealed in the first place. Perhaps it is that concept of Scandinavian folk lore, to this reader's mind a kind of ramped up Grimms' Fairy Tales. Perhaps it was simply the idea that there is always an unexplained lurking evil - the boogie man or the bunyip - that's designed to keep kids in line and give them a bit of a good old fashioned scare into the bargain. So who or what was the legend of Granny Hatchet all about was extremely intriguing.
As Maisa Riipinen and Samuel Autio return to the place of their childhood, their shared pasts are revealed. Coming from the same place - both these adults have a different background - Samuel is the child of one of the refugee families who moved into the area, Maisa is from more local stock. When they were children together, the legend of Granny Hatchet was well known, delivered as a part of a ritual gathering, frightening yet creating a childish bond. Until one young girl leaves the secret circle and Samuel and Maisa are left with their own secret kept until now. Will their coming together again in the place of their childhood mean that the secret is finally revealed?
The narrative timeline of THE BLACK TONGUE switches between the childhood period - and the disappearance of the young girl - and the current day. Switching backwards and forwards abruptly at times there's a sense of unease and constant disruption as a result. That is echoed somehow in the reasons for these two returning after all these years. Maisa for the purposes of research has a clarity about her that matches the childhood observations. Samuel is back to arrange his father's funeral and his sad and reflective rummage around in his past and present seems to match the current day experience much better. It's always clear that there has been a secret past, but how that will be revealed - or if it will be - and what an increasing number of disconnected characters will have to do with it all, becomes complicated and oddly chaotic.
What THE BLACK TONGUE does deliver in spades is a wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. Dark, dank and moody, the setting for this story comes across as absolutely perfect horror territory. When staying with the main themes there's an overwhelming feeling of knowing the two main characters, of understanding their struggles and their imperfections, despite the fact that the legend of Granny Hatchet does seem to disappear from view surprisingly quickly. Where it seems to fall down, is when it wanders off into disconnected, almost surreal territory for no apparent reason.
Which could be the part that stays with you (personally I'm still mildly baffled by proceedings on a small island nobody is supposed to visit) or it could be the age-old problem of kids struggling to make sense of odd things that happen to them, or the life-long affect of guilt. Regardless of what it is that stays with you, nobody could ever accuse THE BLACK TONGUE of being expected reading.
Review - DARK AS MY HEART, Antti Tuomainen
Aleksi lost his mother on a rainy October day when he was thirteen years old. Twenty years later, he is certain that he knows who's responsible. Everything points to millionaire Henrik Saarinen. The police don't agree. Aleksi has only one option: to get close to Henrik Saarinen and find out the truth about his mother's fate on his own. But as Aleksi soon discovers, delving into Saarinen and his beautiful daughter’s family secrets is a confusing and dangerous enterprise.
The exploration of consequences is beautifully executed in Antti Tuomainen’s mesmerising DARK AS MY HEART. That he is an award winning author comes as no surprise, but of the five novels to his name in his native Finland, the third “The Healer” and this, his fourth novel, are so far the only ones translated into English. Needless to say THE HEALER is now on the TBR pile.
Aleksi Kivi was thirteen years old when his mother vanished. Now, twenty years on, he’s still haunted by her murder, and his feelings of recognition and utter belief that the millionaire owner of the company his mother worked for is responsible for that death could seem like obsession. That possibility is tempered elegantly by his quiet determination, and his willingness to observe, check and insinuate himself into Saarinen’s life in order to discover the truth.
Working as a live-in caretaker on a remote seaside property belonging to Saarinen that insinuation is planned and precisely executed, getting to know members of Saarinen’s family and staff, in particular, dangerously close to his erratic and disturbed daughter Amanda.
Told in a deceptively simple, understated manner which matches the personality and determination of the central character perfectly, there’s a clarity to the storytelling here that truly is mesmerising. The dialogue is sparse and pitched perfectly, establishing emotion, intent, feelings and motivation without having to resort to long, overblown exposition. That perfect touch is applied to the sense of place as well, creating a remote yet luxurious, underpopulated, beautiful yet sinister environment in which Kivi must try to find the truth, and hence allow himself to move on, and to live.
As close to a single sitting read as can be achieved around here, it’s not until after finishing that I realised that what we have in DARK AS MY HEART is about as perfect a combination of character, place and plot as I’ve read in a long time. Classically understated, in that particularly Scandinavian manner that many readers have come to love, the exploration of the why, and the impact of the act are as important to the author as the identification of who.
Review - THE BODYGUARD, Leena Lehtolainen
As a professional bodyguard, Hilja Ilveskero rarely loses her cool. But one day, she and a client have an argument in a Moscow fur salon, and Hilja quits on the spot. When the client turns up dead, Hilja quickly discovers that she is a suspect. In an attempt to clear her name and find the killer, she uncovers ever-deeper layers of subterfuge. Amid all the covert treachery and intrigue, Hilja finds herself falling in love with a suspicious yet irresistibly sexy man—but is her heart clouding her judgment?
Leena Lehtolainen is a Finnish author, best known for her series featuring Policewoman Maria Kallio. THE BODYGUARD is the first in a new trilogy, featuring bodyguard Hilja Ilveskero. According to her website:
"The underlying theme of the trilogy is a series of questions about identity and concealment. Who is each person really? What disguise is each person using? What does it mean to be family? What language does each person speak and understand, and what is each person’s secret language? Finnish is a good secret language—few people understand it — and Finland as a country is a safe haven for many an international criminal. Who is on whose side? Who can be trusted? What is each person’s price? Who is each person willing either to betray or to save?"
Which is something this reader should possibly have read before undertaking this book as there were so many aspects that just didn't make sense.
Starting out in Russia where Ilveskero (she from the blurb who rarely loses her cool), loses her cool immediately when her client, a wealth Finnish woman, insists on buying a Lynx fur coat and Ilveskero quits on the spot. Her objections to this particular fur coat are eventually explained, but immediately the reader is presented with a weird discordance - for somebody who rarely loses her cool - she's let it rip early on. Who's wrong here - the blurb or the character. Unfortunately a sneaking suspicion of understanding creeps in about the time that the wealthy client is shot dead in Moscow, and Ilveskero is questioned by the police. In what starts out as a "clearing her name" storyline, things rapidly progress to another client, a very odd ongoing discussion with herself in the disguise of a male character, a lot of backstory of childhood, and time in bodyguard / security school in the US, and a lurking threatening male who, of course, our heroine promptly falls for, and into the bed of.
The danger of using first person like this is that the reader has to have a connection with the central character. Even if they are selectively viewed, unreliable, odd, self-obsessed, or whatever other failings there are in the protaganist, the reader must want to spend time in that head / those thoughts. For this reader that was a very difficult proposition in THE BODYGUARD. Ilveskero isn't necessarily unreliable, and whilst she's definitely a bit odd, the offputting bit was definitely obsession, slow reveals and repetition. Reading the explanation from the website now makes some sense of some of Ilveskero's obsessions - but just reading the book - they seem like simply character traits, behaviours, with no particular reason. Obviously the use of the slow reveal to explain the Lynx obsession, the difficult childhood, is meant to raise tension - but when it's in the main character's own head - it's just came across to this reader as odd, selective memories. And the constant repetition of elements of the past, of the security school, what her tutor says / thinks, and the location of the cabin, and the bike, and and and - made it feel like you were spending way too much time in the head of somebody with an OCD problem.
None of this was helped by some really odd motivations at points - if you believe the ex-partner responsible for ordering the killing of your boss has sent an underling in pursuit of you - is it even vaguely possible that your first choice would be to fall madly in lust? Even while telling yourself that you can't trust this bloke. Okay so some women might be daft enough but should a trained bodyguard be that stupid? Careless? Whilst attaching trackers to clients and supposedly hiding your location from the same man?
The repetition, the odd motivations, the oversharing of the central character in THE BODYGUARD bogged the reading down to the point where the book felt like it was about 1/3rd longer than it needed to be and the ending seemed constantly in the distance. Even when much of the action had been wrapped up - the final twist was so corny alas it was the straw that broke this camel's back.
SILENCE - Jan Costin Wagner
A young girl disappears while cycling to volleyball practice. Her bike is found in exactly the same place that another girl was murdered, thirty-three years before. The original perpetrator was never brought to justice -- could they have struck again? The eeriness of the crime unsettles not only the police and public, but also someone who has been carrying a burden of guilt for many years...
Because SILENCE is the third of the Detective Kimmo Joentaa series, I read it third. (Rebellious you may well think, not paying attention is a much better explanation).
One of the things that I most love about these three books - ICE MOON, SILENCE and THE WINTER OF THE LIONS is the sheer beauty of everything. The place, the culture and the emotion. Sure Joentaa is in deep mourning for his wife who died too young, but there's no sense of self-pity, this is simply a beautiful example of a man struggling quietly, emotionally, but with enormous dignity to find his path, to resurrect his life.
Whilst he's doing that, aspects of real life must go on - in SILENCE it's about the past and the present - the long unsolved abduction, rape and murder of a young girl, and a copycat crime - the same spot, same method, same outcome. None of which seems to make sense given the great time gap between the two awful crimes.
One of the things that stays with you from all of these books is the gentleness, almost delicacy with which Wagner handles his characters, their places and the events that affect them. Everyone - parents, past and present police officers, even the killer are compassionately drawn. SILENCE is again a book more about why than how, and definitely about the after affects on so many participants - be they unwitting or complicit. It's a book about choices, it's a book about grief, and most of all it's a book about life. Needless to say, you've probably worked out, I loved this series - although I think, unlike me, you'd be best to read them in order to really get a feeling for Joentaa's journey in particular. These are books for those who are less interested in vengeance and action, and looking for something contemplative, compassionate and incredibly moving.
THE WINTER OF THE LIONS - Jan Costin Wagner
Every year since the tragic death of his wife Detective Kimmo Joentaa has prepared for the isolation of Christmas with a glass of milk and a bottle of vodka to arm him against the harsh Finnish winter. However, this year events take an unexpected turn when a young prostitute turns up on his doorstep.
I cannot believe, firstly that I've left the last two books in this series unread for so long, and secondly I'd be daft enough to read the third, THE WINTER OF THE LIONS out of order. Not that it made a lot of difference to the experience. It's hard to use the word enjoyable when you're referring to any of the books by Jan Costin Wagner as they are so steeped in grief and brooding, although, there was just a glimmer that Kimmo Joentaa might be ready to move on a little. Even though the death of his wife is still the defining thing in his life, he is forced to look outside himself, despite it being Christmas, the time of year he most dreads.
Set in Finland, Wagner is a German writer with a unique sense of the culture and the country. His writing is pared down, emotional and dark. The plotting of the book is slow, often impenetrable, yet for this reader, it simply didn't matter. The storytelling really is astoundingly affecting and involving. Joentaa is magnificently morose, but without a feeling of overwhelming self-pity.
The first book in the series, ICE MOON, was a revelation when I first read it and I waited impatiently for the next to be translated. Then for reasons best known to my idiot self, I bought and then never picked up the next book in the series SILENCE. There really are times when I could kick myself, or at least put the book immediately on the bedside table.
ICE MOON - Jan Costin Wagner
Recently finished, ICE MOON by Jan Costin Wagner was an unexpected pleasure. It seems that Wagner has a bit of a reputation in his homeland of Germany for turning the "traditional" form of crime fiction on its head and if that's the case then he's done it again with ICE MOON.
Whilst there is murder, and an obviously very disturbed serial killer, in many ways ICE MOON is more an exploration of grief. The book opens with Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa confronted with the death of his young wife from cancer. Returning to work straight away, he is left trying to understand and deal with her death, whilst a strange series of connected killings begin to occur involving a range of seemingly unconnected victims.
Whilst the crime investigation proceeds through the book, the focus of ICE MOON remains Kimmo's struggle with grief, the affect that the grief has on his decision making, his life and his work. Ultimately it's that overwhelming sense of his own grief which tempers and informs the entire book - it's significantly less about the crime and more an exploration of this one man's grief.
This was undoubtedly one of the most moving books I've read in a long long while - the crime was handled well, but what you come away from is the awfulness of loss, and Kimmo's tentative steps back into his life.