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by James Thompson
Putnam, March 2012
336 pages
ISBN: 0399158324

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A hero of a mystery or spy thriller may have a secret life or personality that his colleagues and/or family do not suspect. This is a common device used by writers of these genres. However, the main character of James Thompson's novel HELSINKI WHITE is unusual in that he has both an ordinary life and a quite out of the ordinary existence at the same time. Helsinki police Inspector Kari Vaara has an American wife named Kate, a newborn daughter named Anu, and an affectionate cat named Katt. He is concerned with childcare and groceries. He exchanges Valentine's Day gifts with his wife and they seem to have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. Yet Vaara has been assigned to head a black ops unit where his methods include dissolving a gangster's body in a vat of acid. With Kate's knowledge and seeming tacit approval, he steals from bad guys after they have clinched their drug deals, and then uses the money to fund his own operation and line the pockets of his boss. He compares his operation to J. Edgar Hoover's undercover work, yet believes he is helping people.

He and his two henchmen, a big lug nicknamed Sweetness and Milo, a computer hacker, use his dining room table to set up their equipment. At the start of the book, his migraine headaches have been diagnosed as symptoms of a brain tumor and he must undergo brain surgery—which he decides to combine with knee surgery and cosmetic surgery. Although this is a risky operation, we believe he will come through it only because the book has just begun.

Besides his behind the scenes work with his group, Vaara is officially assigned a particularly gruesome case. He had gained national fame in the past for solving a high-profile case, so he was specifically requested to head up this investigation. A public official who had spoken out against racism has been beheaded. Only her head has been found, since it was mailed to an organization that represents Somali immigrants. The initial murder appears to be part of an on-going race war, as a series of other murders and robberies ensue. Another high-profile case involving racists and kidnappings and murder may be linked to Vaara's own case and he investigates that one as well. Along the way, he accumulates great sums of money and an assortment of weaponry. He allies himself with an enigmatic killer named Adrien Moreau, who has spent time in the French Foreign Legion. The book includes ugly murders and scenes of torture, and almost none of the characters go unscathed.

Incidental to the murder, we learn background information about Finnish society that is quite unsettling. Finland has a problem with racism that includes very vocal neo-Nazi groups as well as organizations that target mainly black immigrants. In an afterword to the book, Thompson, an ex-pat American living in Helsinki, explains that he has chosen his themes from real life to call attention to the fact that both racism and political corruption are growing in his country as well as in all of Scandinavia. If his take on Finland is accurate, the fictional HELSINKI WHITE reveals evil that is frighteningly real.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, March 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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