Fresh Meat: Helsinki White by James Thompson

Helsinki White by James ThompsonHelsinki White by James Thompson is the latest in the Kari Vaara series of police procedurals set in Finland (available March 15, 2012).

There are good cops and bad cops. And then there’s Kari Vaara. This guy has not had it easy. People shoot him and he shoots back. Kari lives in Finland so this is a bigger deal than if his badge read “NYPD.” His last few cases have drained him physically and emotionally. Then there are the migraines. Scratch that. The brain tumor masquerading as crippling headaches. But at least he and his American wife, Kate, moved out of Lapland, with its months of northern Finnish darkness and a sparse but surprisingly violent population. Now they’re in Helsinki, with Kari working in Major Crimes and Kate resting after giving birth to their daughter. Did I mention she previously miscarried the couple’s twins? Life is only a few notches up from bleak for Kari. And what better way to spend your convalescence—he undergoes neurosurgery to remove the tumor—but to investigate the brutal and likely racially motivated murder of a government official? This is when Kari starts veering into the no man’s land between crime solvers and criminals.

Approached by the National Chief of Police, he becomes the leader of a black ops unit that fights crime…with crime. Drug dealers getting out of hand? Steal their stash or, better yet, set up a rival dealer to take the fall. Planting guns on weapons dealers, less-than-legal surveillance, it’s all in the name of making Helsinki safer. It also means that at the end of the day, Kari and his team are rich, money that goes to pay for all the best gear. But it comes at a price. When Kari tries to tell Chief Jyri Ivalo that a salary is sufficient payment for his new gig, it becomes clear that there’s a larger agenda at play.

Giving [partners] Milo and Sweetness a bonus was a one-off. I never intended to become a crooked cop and do this for profit. “Thanks, but no, thanks,” I said. “My paycheck will suffice.”

Jyri laughed at me. “Goddamn, you’re naïve. You have to take the money. If you’re not complicit, we can’t trust you. Just consider it part of your paycheck. Trust me, you’ll get used to it.”

I didn’t know how to respond for a moment. I stumbled on my words. “What happened to your speech about helping people?”

He shrugged. “Then help people.” He snickered. “You know what they say the three biggest lies are?”

Disillusioned, I just shook my head no.

“I love you, the check is in the mail, and I won’t come in your mouth.”

“Wow, what a great joke.”

“Actually, the point is that the joke is wrong. The biggest lie is that altruism exists.” 

I’m all for dirty (fictional) cops. They create a more interesting reading experience. So do those on the straight and narrow, the kind that would take Jyri’s blood money and tell him where to shove it because breaking the law is breaking the law, no matter who’s doing it. But the cops that make the most compelling heroes? They’re the ones like Kari, who make choices that we like to think we wouldn’t make but secretly probably would if given the chance.

And the farther down the rabbit hole Kari goes, the more difficult it becomes to go back. James Thompson’s Finland is full of rightwing extremists and their Real Finns party, eagerly stoking the coals of a race war that could flare up at any moment given the right circumstances. Sending the Minister of Immigration’s severed head to the Finnish Somalia Network with a note decrying her liberal immigration policies counts as pouring accelerant on this fire. While Kari is allegedly cleaning up the streets for the chain of command, the chain of command is joining hands with men (and yes, most of them are men) whose goal it is to make Finland as white as its snow. It’s hard to stay the moral course, fight the good fight—and in Kari’s case convince your wife that it’s a good idea to go out night after night with a bag full of weapons and piss off drug dealers—when nearly everyone around you is part of the corruption you’re trying to clean up.

The best thing Thompson does for the reader is also the worst thing for Kari. There is no escape once he accepts the secret assignment and yet was there ever really a choice? Could he have refused the job? Possibly but then he wouldn’t be Kari Vaara. Milo might savor the intellectual challenge of planning the perfect drug heist with all the cutting edge surveillance equipment and Sweetness might get a disturbing degree of satisfaction out of beating senseless whoever gets in their way. But for Kari there is still the naïveté of the untainted cop out to save the world. It’s both shocking and comforting that such a man still exists beneath the tough Finnish exterior, considering everything Thompson has put him through. When Kari tells Kate about Jyri’s proposition, he tells her that he thinks, finally, he could matter.

“Are you asking my permission?”

“Yes,” I said, “I am, because I’ll break laws and it’s risky. And because if we’re going to live in this country, I think I have to. During the Filippov investigation, I gathered a lot of dirt on people in positions of power. I know too much. If I refuse, they’ll find a way to discredit and destroy me, to protect themselves. In a way, they’re offering to let me join their boys’ club. If you don’t want me to take the job, we should leave Finland and move to America. I want you to make the decision.”

“Do you want this?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I feel that for the first time in my life, I have a chance to do something that makes a true difference. Most likely, I’ll never have another opportunity like this again. But I don’t have to make a difference. If you want me to turn it down, I will, without hard feelings or regrets.”

The moment that Kate tells him to take the job, Kari, without realizing it, becomes a “dirty cop” and yet no less our hero.

Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.

Read all of Jordan Foster’s posts for Criminal Element.