My overriding emotion in life thus far had been remorse. My life had been a constant struggle to make up for what I perceived as my failures. – Kari Vaara
As Helsinki White opens Kari once again finds the balance in his life shifting. He and his wife, Kate, are the proud new parents of a baby girl, he gets an offer from the National Chief of Police to run a top secret unit dedicated to eradicating Helsinki’s most serious crimes, and Kari’s scheduled for surgery his physicians are optimistic will remove the tumor. That’s a little too much of a solid foundation given Kari’s history, so you know something has to give.
The first piece of the foundation starts to crumble when Kari realizes the real reason his little unit has been empowered with such autonomy and secrecy… it’s meant to be the ‘boots on the ground’ front for a few very highly placed corrupt government officials. Kari and his team – including the return of über intelligent if slightly unstable Milo Nieminien, as well as the addition of Sulo “Sweetness” Polvinen, a mountain of a man who has a surprisingly gentle soul – are expected to put criminals out of business by any means necessary, including stealing their guns and drugs, even framing people in order to get them out of the way, and then funnel the proceeds of their own criminal activity back up the highly selective chain of command. Not what Kari thought he was signing up for, he thought he would get a chance to stop the human trafficking running through Finland, but he’s in too deep to just quit. He has to go along until he can figure out an exit strategy.
Kari’s foundation completely implodes, however, following his surgery. While it’s successful in removing the tumor, that’s not all that gets removed during the process. One of the potential side effects of such an invasive procedure into the brain was the possibility Kari would suffer from an emotional detachment, and it indeed happens. Total disconnect. And while this newfound emotional numbness makes it easier for Kari to engage in the ruthless behavior he must to meet the worst of the criminal world on their own level, it causes serious problems in his personal life. Really, how do you tell your wife that you have no feelings anymore, including any sense of affection for her or your new child? You don’t, so Kari decides to fake it hoping the numbness will subside and he will eventually be able to reconnect with Kate. It’s a tremendous amount for one man to be burdened with, but this is Kari Vaara… so of course things are going to get worse.
Finland is in political upheaval, with various hate groups making their presence known in a depressed economy which they blame on the “immigrant problem.” One group in particular, The Real Finns Party, is actually a dark horse contender in the upcoming parliamentary elections, a somewhat disturbing thought considering the group’s only political agenda seems to be expulsion of all non-Finns from the country. When Finland’s leading immigrants’s rights activist is murdered and her severed head delivered to the Finnish Somalia Network, all signs point to The Real Finns having been behind the murder. Given Kari’s hero status, which was earned in large part by solving the brutal murder of actress Sufia Elmi, herself a Somali immigrant (Snow Angels), he’s tapped by the National Chief of Police and the President to solve the case before things degenerate into an all-out race war. Easier said than done when the hate groups are backed by anti-immigrant sympathizers with both money and power.
As he’s done in the past in Snow Angels (Finnish alcoholism and emotional isolation) and Lucifer’s Tears (Finland’s complicity with the Nazis during World War II), author James Thompson shows once again that he’s not afraid to tackle some very big ticket issues in the course of telling Kari’s story. And the issues at hand in Helsinki White – drugs, human trafficking, and hate – don’t get any bigger or uglier. The racial hatred and intolerance ravaging Finland are addressed with no punches pulled, and it should be noted that language some readers may find offensive is used quite freely throughout the book. Additionally, the crime scenes of several racially motivated killings are described in disturbing detail. Neither is done gratuitously, however, but rather to realistically frame the true extent of the problem facing Kari as an Inspector and Finland as a nation.
Similarly, Kari discovers during the course of doing battle with Helsinki’s drug dealers that solving the city’s drug problem isn’t as simple as just removing the drugs from the equation. In fact, when his team does their job a little too well and Helsinki runs nearly dry crime actually skyrockets as users do anything it takes to get money for a fix, which now costs an exorbitant amount considering the dealers holding what little supply the city has left are able to charge obscene amounts for the product. The dealers also start turning on each other as being responsible for their shipments being ripped off, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except innocent bystanders are getting caught up in the cross-fire. Turns out “solving” the drug problem actually creates even bigger problems, a concept Kari hadn’t considered, and which many readers may not have either, but one which Thompson unflinchingly forces both Kari and readers to think about.
Thompson also uses Kari’s emotional detachment following the surgery and his subsequent interactions with his wife and team as a means to explore the very nature of how humans approach and value life. Do we value things because of their importance and emotional significance, or do things become important and emotionally significant because we choose to give them value? It’s a distinction which makes an extreme difference, especially to a man struggling to find a sense of emotional attachment to anything, let alone the things society says he should value. And throughout the course of Helsinki White Kari’s self-reflection on the matter leads him to make interesting choices in how he deals with the various crises, both personal and professional, which confront him. Those choices have effects which, like a stone being thrown into a pond, ripple outward and necessarily affect everyone around him. Indeed, by the time Helsinki White rockets to its quite violent conclusion it’s fair to say that every character in the book has experienced a life-altering change to the very nature of their being.
Though all of these things make Helsinki White a much darker book than the previous two entries in the series, Thompson’s writing remains as razor sharp and exquisitely evocative as readers have come to expect and appreciate. He also continues to demonstrate that he is without peer when it comes to combining intense and engaging storytelling with intelligent and provocative commentary about extremely serious societal issues. And while it’s both entertaining and enlightening, Helsinki White is not a passive reading experience. Readers better come ready to engage in critical examination of not just the story, but their own beliefs and ideals as well. Kari Vaara and James Thompson both demand nothing less.
Helsinki White will be released by Putnam on March 15th (ISBN: 978-0399158322).
Also be sure to read Jim’s two guest posts, “Will I Be Assassinated? – An Interview With James Thompson” and “My Life Just Isn’t Anybody Else’s Business.”