Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snow Angels - James Thompson

Snow Angels
An Inspector Vaara Novel
James Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime


In Finnish Lapland, one hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, there are two weeks of constant darkness, called kaamas. The ski resorts stay open, and lots of people cope by drinking far too much. There are killings, but they’re usually domestic in nature. This year, at the beginning of kaamas, local chief of police Kari Vaara arrives at the scene of a terrifically brutal murder.

Sufia Elmi is a B-movie actress in Finnish films. She’s something of an anomaly, since she’s a refugee from Somalia. Her death, just outside the neighborhood where Vaara grew up, looks like it could be a sex crime, or a hate crime. Either way, the violence done to the body of the beautiful girl is going to be big news and the national chief of police wants a solution and an arrest in short order.

This beautifully-written novel takes place in an environment that seems almost alien. The people and their motivations are recognizable, but they’re all filtered through the lens of a different culture, a different history, a different set of laws. That only makes sense when you realize that the residents are people who chose, more or less, to live in a place where the temperature regularly hovers in the ‘below zero degrees Celsius’ range for a good part of the year. At first blush it sounds harsh and arid, but as the author continues to describe the place and its people, the beauty of the place and the strength of the people emerge, too.

Many U.S. readers will be unaware that there was a large influx of Somali refugees in Finland in recent decades. Before that point, many Finns had never seen a black person, outside of TV shows. The author speaks of a quiet, ingrained racism. It’s important to remember, but also odd, in a place where there would be so few people of color. The death of this Somali girl is shocking, then, for many reasons.

Vaara and his skeleton crew (it’s close to Christmas) are perhaps in over their heads, but this is where they live, Sufia died on their watch, and they’re doing everything they should be doing to solve the crime. At times, the mystery almost takes a back seat to the setting, but, in the end, it all feels right. The characters are complex, and the prose is spare enough to echo the setting, yet still evocative. The eventual solution comes through a series of muddled human and inhuman actions and reactions. This is one of those stories that truly transports the reader to a unique place, and holds us there until the tale is told.

Rating: 8
February 2011
ISBN# 978-0-425-23883-7 (trade paperback)


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