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).