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by James Thompson
Putnam, January 2010
264 pages
ISBN: 0399156178

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

During kaamos, the time of the year when the sun never rises over the ski resort of Kittila in northern Finland, murder is generally an alcohol-related domestic affair. Inspector Kari Vaara has never before dealt with a hate crime like the murder of the beautiful Somali actress, Sufia Elmi who has been discovered dead - naked, battered, slashed, and sexually assaulted with a glass bottle in a snowy field. Her thrashing limbs have created a bloody snow angel. The fact that her killer has cut racist words into her abdomen means Vaara is dealing with a hate crime.

Complicating things further, the prime suspect is the common-law husband of Vaara's ex-wife. But a solution for this crime won't come easily. Though Sufia's parents are strict Muslims, the young star of B pictures has been leading a wild life that makes it unclear which DNA evidence, if any, belongs to the killer. And none of it matches the DNA found in a tear frozen on Sufia's dead cheek.

Thompson does a good job of handling multiple plot threads through the spare first-person narrative voice of Kari Vaara. The fascinating setting and the characters who inhabit it is the greatest attraction of the book. The Finnish detective has an American wife, which offers opportunities for exposition that doesn't feel forced. The weather, the indigenous Saami minority, small town culture and the history of the region are sprinkled lightly throughout the story, but they are understated and never degenerate into exotic tourism.

Less successful is the author's handling of the racial issues involved. Characters and motives are not thoroughly developed enough to probe beneath the surface of this small and isolated community. Though the use of the n-word might accurately represent what the cardboard antagonists might say, it becomes gratuitous and a little sickening with repetition. (In contrast, Arnaldur Indridason's ARCTIC CHILL depicts much more nuanced and complex responses of the community to race crime.) Most disappointing is that we get to know so little of the victim. We learn more about the detective's wife, who plays little role in the investigation. There seems to be a standard ratio at work: the more gory the crime, the less interest writers display in the (almost inevitably female and beautiful) victim.

Still, there's a lot to like about this mystery. The understated narrative voice, the author's first-hand knowledge of and fondness for the culture, and the excellent pacing of the story bode well for the future. Though this is James Thompson's first English language publication, it's not his debut. A Kentucky native, Thompson has lived in Finland for many years and has had three crime novels published previously in Finnish translation, including SNOW ANGELS and two political thrillers.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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