Things were pretty grim when we last saw Finnish Inspector Kari Vaara and his crew at the end of Helsinki White. Though they’d brought the high profile Lisbet Söderlund case to a conclusion–more or less–it was not without great cost, both personally and professionally.
Already physically battered from previous years on the job (Snow Angels, Lucifer’s Tears) and emotionally numb as a side effect of surgery to remove a brain tumor, Vaara once again suffered debilitating gunshot injuries to the knee and jaw. His right-hand man, the über intelligent if slightly unstable Milo Nieminien, was also left crippled by a gunshot to the wrist, while Vaara’s wife, Kate, was forced to take an action so extreme it has left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The only one who escaped relatively unscathed was the team’s third member, Sulo “Sweetness” Polvinen, though Sweetness was already carrying around a drinking problem, one which hasn’t gotten any better in the aftermath. Of course, the team also managed to make ten million in ransom money “disappear,” and that’s going a long way toward easing their respective pain.
Until, that is, Kate finally snaps and runs off back home to America, and the people Vaara and his team have made enemies of–and their numbers are legion–decide it’s time to start pushing back. Now Vaara must once again rally his dysfunctional team around him, this time with the goal of getting out from under the sword hanging over their heads once and for all…whatever it takes.
James Thompson, a Kentucky native who’s been living in Finland for the past fifteen years, has created an immensely compelling and complicated character in Kari Vaara. The path readers have followed Vaara down from the first book in the series, Snow Angels, to the events which unfold in Helsinki Blood has been one with many twists and turns, and Vaara’s actions have not always been such that allowed readers to cheer him. However, while not making excuses for Vaara’s often highly questionable behavior, Thompson has very carefully laid a quite believable foundation to explain Vaara’s actions. The pain from his physical injuries has made Vaara resort to self-medicating with a potent mix of alcohol and painkillers, and the emotional detachment he’s been going through life with following his brain tumor surgery has left him with the ability to make very cold, clinical decisions about things most people would find difficult, if not downright repugnant.
An example of his doing right if not entirely for the right reasons thought process: in Helsinki Blood Vaara is approached by an Estonian woman who desperately seeks his aid finding her daughter, a nineteen-year-old with Down syndrome who was lured to Helsinki with the promise of a secretarial job, but who the woman fears has been forced into prostitution. Despite the incredibly full plate Vaara and his team have just trying to keep their own families alive in the face of the onslaught their enemies are throwing at them, Vaara agrees to find the young woman, but does so because he thinks success will help him win Kate back by proving to her that he still cares about helping good people, not just taking down bad guys–that he hasn’t become one of the bad guys. It’s not that Vaara doesn’t actually care about the forced prostitution taking place in his city, but rather the way he approaches the situation–what’s in it for him–that makes his behavior slightly less than admirable, which also serves to make Vaara incredibly realistic and believable.
And it’s that level of realism, in everything from the harsh Finnish weather to Vaara’s calculating attitude to the often graphic violence depicted, that elevates the Kari Vaara series to something more than “just” crime fiction. Thompson has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to tackle serious and often touchy societal issues in his fiction–Finns’ substance abuse and emotional isolation in Snow Angels, Finland’s complicity with the Nazis during World War II in Lucifer’s Tears, Finnish nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment/racism in Helsinki White–but he has the skill as a storyteller to combine his intelligent and provocative social commentary with intense and engaging plots in an incredibly smooth and seamless manner.
It all makes for a series which both educates and entertains, and which consistently raises the bar on itself. Thompson has said that Helsinki Blood wraps up an arc and that there is something completely new in store for Vaara and his team. I can’t wait to find out what that is.
Helsinki Blood is available from Putnam (ISBN: 978-0399158889).