Saturday 12 September 2015

Book Review: The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

A chilling sense of place pervades the best northern noir thrillers - the biting cold, claustrophobic darkness and engulfing isolation combining to create a perfect backdrop for the grisliest of crimes. It is there in the Icelandic setting of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind which I reviewed recently, and can be found in spades (or should that be snow shovels?) in Finnish writer Kati Hiekkapelto's The Defenceless, translated by David Hackston.

This is Hiekkapelto's second book to feature police investigator Anna Fekete, following her highly regarded debut The Hummingbird. It opens in the winter cold - as Pakistani Christian Sammy, a migrant who arrived in Finland via Russia alongside the heroin he knows only too well, is searching for his next hit. Having been refused asylum, he's living illegally, scavenging and sleeping in bins. He comes to the police's attention when he's caught at his dealer's flat during a raid - but what does he have to do with an old man, who lived in the same apartment block, having been found dead on a desolate road? Or their missing neighbour - a woman who might just have seen too much?

This is a novel of multiple strands which Anna only gradually begins to unravel, as she does so finding herself mired in the complexities of illegal immigration, drug dealers, gang warfare and murder. She reflects:
There is a classic Finnish combination at the root of most homicides: blades and alcohol. Normally it was an axe and alcohol. 
As a Hungarian immigrant, Anna knows how it feels to be an outsider. Living alone, she takes her comfort where she can but her thoughts often fly to her family back home. Yet, she is a modern woman; athletic, environmentally aware, not yet ready for a steady relationship and all the compromises that might bring. And, like so many who have been transplanted into a different culture, she no longer feels that she truly belongs anywhere:
She tried to call her mother on Skype. She wanted to talk about Grandma, her final days, her funeral. She wanted to tell her mother about the pain, her sense of longing, to talk about Zoran, to ask her mother why breaking up with a married man, with whom she hadn't officially been together, could feel so terrible. There was no answer. Thank God, she thought. I don't normally talk to Mum about my feelings and certainly not about my sex life. Besides, her mother would have seen straight through it all and said that Anna needed to be in touch with her roots, whatever form that touch might take.
Anna's police partner Esko, on the other hand - an unreconstructed aging alpha male who smokes and drinks too much and is so unfit that he almost kills himself running after a suspect - embodies racist, anti-immigrant attitudes like the true relic from the past that he is. But, as he delves deeper into the activities of a criminal gang and it seems that his own life may be in danger, a well of loneliness emerges - which means he and Anna are much more alike than they could ever originally have imagined.

If, like me, your knowledge of Finnish literature is limited (in a quick scan, I could only identify Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna on my shelves), then Kati Hiekkapelto's writing makes a welcome addition to the fold. Here is a writer who is always in the most masterful control of her story; her plotting complex, her taut prose full of suspense. Most of all, she strikes a particularly poignant chord at a time when we are witnessing in Europe one of the largest mass migrations - and creating the greatest number of potential outsiders - in recent history.

The Defenceless is translated into English by David Hackston and published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for the photos and review copy. 

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