Snow Angels by James Thompson

Snow Angels by James ThompsonThere would be silence, but cold has a sound of its own. The branches of trees freeze solid and crack under the weight of the snow with sounds like muted gunshots. – Kari Vaara

Set in Lapland, Northern Finland during Kaamos, the time of year just before Christmas when temperatures plunge to -40° and night never gives way to day, Snow Angels marks the stunning English language debut of author James Thompson.

Inspector Kari Vaara knows he has a serious problem on his hands when he arrives at the scene of a horrific murder and finds that the victim is famous actress Sufia Elmi, who also happens to be a Somali immigrant.

Finland being a nation of closet xenophobes – We don’t talk about hatred, we hate in silence. It’s our way. We do everything in silence. – Vaara realizes the combination hate-crime / sex-crime the murder appears to be could make for explosive headlines if not solved quickly.

Unfortunately for Vaara, what initially appears to be a pretty decent lead on the vehicle that transported the body to the dump site ends up mushrooming into multiple suspects and scenarios, all of which seem possible. Further complicating things, Vaara has a personal connection to one of the prime suspects, the man for whom his ex-wife left him, causing some to speculate about the validity of the evidence Vaara has gathered.

The investigation that unfolds over the course of the book is as much one that exposes the people of rural Northern Finland as it does the murderer of Sufia Elmi. Those living at the edge of the Arctic Circle endure a desolate existence, one that has left them silent and largely inscrutable, even to other Finns. Quite bravely, Thompson has chosen to present Finland in that blunt, “this is who we are” fashion, and his prose in doing so is absolutely masterful. The dichotomy between the starkness of the crimes and the lushness of the scenery in Snow Angels is striking:

The black-and-yellow crime-scene tape looks out of place on a reindeer farm. The spot where Sufia’s body lay is a bloody hole gouged in the snow, like an empty eye socket. The scene will be torn to bits soon, when forest animals smell the blood and come looking.


Here the sky is arched, and there’s almost no pollution. In spring and fall the sky is a dark blue or violet, and sunsets last for hours. The sun turns into a dim orange ball that transforms clouds into silver-rimmed red and violet towers. In winter, twenty-four hours a day, uncountable stars outline the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral we live in. Finnish skies are the reason I believe in God.

Thompson’s exquisite descriptions of man’s crimes and nature’s beauty make Snow Angels the most hauntingly atmospheric book I’ve read in quite some time. Thompson has, in fact, managed to transcend “crime fiction” with Snow Angels, delivering up not just a highly satisfying murder mystery, but an intimate look at Finnish culture as well. Do yourself a favor and get this book. You will not be disappointed.

Snow Angels is available from Putnam (ISBN: 978-0399156175).

Snow Angels is the first book in James Thompson’s Inspector Kari Vaara series. The second book in the series, Lucifer’s Tears, is scheduled for release in March 2011. Thompson, American by birth, has lived in Finland for over a decade and currently resides in Helsinki with his wife. To learn more about James Thompson, visit his website.

Snow Angels was one of my Top 10 Reads of 2010

– Author James Thompson on the inspiration for Snow Angels –


  • Annie Taschereau

    August 25, 2010 - 7:33 PM

    Thank you for such a brilliant review. I have read “Snow Angels” and I completely concur with you regarding both the book and James Thompson’s craftmanship. The quotes you have selected are perfect examples of what readers can expect from reading “Snow Angels”, and they are also typical of the kind of writing Jim can produce consistently. I, for one, was delighted to hear that there are at least three more Inspector Vaara books to look forward to, with the next installment, “Lucifer’s Tears”, due for publication in the spring of 2011.

  • […] Elizabeth White’s review. Elizabeth writes for, among other publications, The Savannah News. […]

  • Elizabeth A. White

    August 1, 2010 - 9:14 AM

    Thank you, Naomi. And, yes, Thompson has some of the most brilliantly descriptive writing you’ll ever read. Great stuff!

  • Naomi Johnson

    July 30, 2010 - 9:54 PM

    Excellent review. I love that line about Finnish skies and believing in God.

  • Lucious Lamour

    July 30, 2010 - 11:41 AM

    This sounds like a really great book. The setting of Finland is a nice change of pace. The descriptions that you cited are amazing. The promo video was cool too. I liked the author’s description of the detective, “he’s not really a great detective, he just doesn’t like to fail.”

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