Helsinki Homicide: Cold Trail by Jarkko Sipila

By Ian Walkley

Jarkko Sipila is a Finnish author and journalist. He has reported on Finnish crime for more than 20 years, has written 15 books, and co-wrote a TV-series based on the Takamäki books. The Ilta-Sanomat describes Sipila as “One of the great Finnish crime novelists.” His style is strong on action and realism, and through his complex characters and story lines he explores current topics surrounding life in contemporary Finland.

COLD TRAIL is Sipila’s fourth in his prize-winning Helsinki Homicide series, and joins NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, AGAINST THE WALL, and VENGEANCE, which are all available in English. COLD TRAIL is a story about Timo Repo, who escapes from prison where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife. Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamäki and his team have the task of finding Repo. But why has he escaped? Generally one-time offenders are not considered particularly dangerous, but does Repo have revenge on his mind, and if so on whom?

The series protagonist, Detective Kari Takamaki, is a professional cop and family man. We’re used to reading about cops with flawed characters. How did you develop Takamaki’s character?

I created Takamaki around 2000 and at that time I had worked as a crime reporter for ten years. Of course I had met dozens of policemen and knew quite a few very well. Of course there are problems among policemen and –women. You see alcoholism, divorces, family problems, misuse of drugs etc, but you never see all the problems in a same person. In those cases he or she would be on a sick leave or forced to quit the job.

I decided very early that I wanted to write as realistic novels as possible. So the protagonist would have to be also as realistic as possible. There have been problems in his personal life in the Finnish series as the 13th book is coming out this June. But I’ve also tried to keep the main focus on the crimes and criminals.

In COLD TRAIL a convicted murderer has escaped from prison. Why is Takamaki worried about this one-time killer offending again?

He is not worried, maybe frustrated. Police had investigated the case years ago and when the prison department screws up, it gets tossed back to the police. In the beginning Takamaki takes the case quite lightly. Later on the hunt gets more intense as police find out alarming facts about a possible revenge.

And who are some of the other colorful characters in the story?

There are the other policemen, for example Suhonen. He is not your normal investigator, but works the streets in his leather jacket and sporting a ponytail. In the story we meet his junkie friends and felons.

Jarkko, please tell us a little about your background, particularly as a crime reporter, and how this has helped your fiction writing.

I started as a crime reporter in 1991. In those days I worked at HELSINGIN SANOMAT, which is the largest newspaper in Finland. In 1996 Channel 3 TV news hired me and I am still working there. Crime reporting and fiction writing go hand in hand as the real world provides good stories and also an insight to the underworld.

Your work is highly regarded for its realism. In your earlier novel, AGAINST THE WALL, you describe in remarkable detail the violent underworld in Finland, its organized crime gangs and connections to the Russian underground, its snitches, and its corrupt officials. How much of this is based on personal knowledge and experience?

That is the world we see in the news. The books are fiction, but I try to build them so that they could happen. One of the main storylines in Cold Trail is the murderer’s story. The police go into his background and find disturbing things about the earlier murder investigation. He could have been unjustly sentenced for life. This again is not very far from the reality.

How did you first become motivated to write fiction? What authors did/do you enjoy reading?

It started in the early ‘90s. There had been several crime fiction writers working at Helsingin Sanomat crime department since the ‘50s. One of them Harri Nykänen was there at the same time as I and he encouraged me in to fiction writing. A couple of Harris Raid-books have also been translated into English. There are quite a few Finnish writers who I enjoy reading. My English favorites are Ed McBain and John Grisham.

How did you feel about writing the screenplay for the TV series, after writing novels?

It is very different. In a book the author has total control over it, but in TV (or movies) it is the director who has the final word. One hour episodes are more like short stories than novels.

What is it, do you think, that fascinates readers about Nordic crime fiction?

It is a hard question. I think there are a lot of good writers who understand and know the genre. Good police stories are not connected to the time or place and can be read and easily understood all over the world as the police operates the same way.

There is no use to put crime on a pedestal, but it is equally useless to try to discredit it. Crime is an unpleasant phenomenon of the society. It is also sort of a black, magnifying mirror that reflects the bad things like greed and wickedness of the current society.

Some readers tell writers that they feel uncomfortable about scenes of explicit violence or sex. How do you as an author decide the way you will pen something that might make even you feel squeamish?

I don’t really like writing violent scenes and I’ve cut them to a minimum. It is better to describe the body than “making of the body”.

What’s next on the agenda for Jarkko Sipila?

My 13th Takamaki novel is out in early June and the planning of the next one starts in fall. I published another book just recently. It was an interesting project as I wrote it co-op with an American ex-Wall Street banker Scott Stevenson. The murder story happens prior the financial crisis in 2007-2008 New York and the setting is a (fictional) major bank. Scott was writing in English and I wrote in Finnish. The Finnish version came out in April and the US-version DECAY TIME is coming out in May. It’ll probably take a couple of months to “recover” from these projects.

Jarkko Sipila’s novel HELSINKI HOMICIDE: COLD TRAIL was released by Ice Cold Crime in May.

To learn more about Jarkko, please visit his website.

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