Short Take: Noir or Not?

Kathryn Sweney

My obsession with crime fiction started in about fifth grade when I checked out all the Perry Mason books I could find at the public library. Later I progressed to the so-called “hard-boiled” detective fiction from the 20s, 30s, and 40s: primarily Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. Later still, Patricia Cornwell’s coroner Kay Scarpetta fascinated me until it seemed that she was spending far too much time writing from the criminal’s perspective. Then I found the Nordic crime writers, among them, Stieg Larrson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Karin Fossum (Don’t Look Back), and Henning Mankell (The White Lioness). I was living in Norway when the Swedish movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released with English subtitles and waited avidly for the U.S. release. My favorite crime author now might be Iceland’s Arnaldur Indriðason (Jar City), whose stories usually weave together an old unsolved crime and a more recent one. His 2005 novel Silence of the Grave begins: “He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.” How can you not go on reading?

Noir Feet

So when NDQ received a publication notice for Helsinki Noir, I ordered a copy. I was expecting Humphrey Bogart. I got Rapa and Marko: the first, the leader of a group of boys who roam around looking for someone to terrorize, and the second, a man who crushes the windpipe of a monk who annoys him. It seemed as though the review should be titled “Not so Noir.”

Noir, according to The Mystery Bookshelf website, is a subset of hard-boiled fiction, in which the lead character is a streetwise detective often trying to right the wrongs of the world. In noir, the focus is on “a victim, suspect, or the actual criminal” and “the self-destructive qualities of the characters.” Helsinki Noir combines both kinds of fiction. In “Kiss of Santa” by Leena Lehtolainen, for example, a very streetwise store detective turns into Santa both literally and figuratively. And in “Snowy Sarcophagus” by Jukka Petäjä, two young Nigerian women are murdered but the wrong is somewhat righted when a detective ferrets out the murderer.

Beyond those hard-boiled type stories there are the noir ones, a baby napper, a patricide plotter, a serial rapist. At least two stories defy categorization: “The Broker” and “St. Peter’s Street” by Rikka Ala-Harja. Insider trading and imaginary lovers hardly seem like detective fiction. A number of stories are set against a back ground of social issues such as sex trafficking and child abuse from the relatively mild (“Stolen Lives” by Johanna Holmström) to the horrific (“The Hand of Ai” by John Thompson).

One of the joys of reading fiction set in other places by authors of varied ethnicity is the glimpse a reader gets of that other place. “The Silent Woman” by Joe L. Murr, for example, begins by describing Kati. “She hasn’t said more than ten words to me since I arrived at her flat. It doesn’t mean she’s upset with me. This is a Finnish silence. She’ll break it when she has something to say. I’ve become used to it, living in Helsinki.”

The changing demographic of Finland, and by extension of Europe, is the backdrop in “Stolen Lives” by Johanna Holmström. Celestine lives in a building where she “is one of only a few with a Swedish last name. Everyone else is Finnish, Somalian, Arab, Kurdish, Vietnamese . . . She has tried figuring out how many nationalities are gathered underneath the same roof. There must be at least nine” (263). “Stolen Lives” also provides a glimpse of a custom common in Scandinavia but which most Americans would find strange: “Carin’s baby takes his daytime naps outdoors just like all the other children, even if it is winter” (262).

Helsinki Noir is one of a series of about 200 noir-themed books set in various national and international locations and published by Akashic Books. Barcelona Noir, anyone?

Kathryn Sweney is the managing editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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