By J. N. Duncan
I’d like to welcome crime writer, Jarkko Sipila, whose crime fiction story, Helsinki Homicide: Nothing But The Truth, comes out this August, from Ice Cold Crime. Mr. Sipila is part of the growing wave of Scandanavian crime fiction writers getting published in the U.S., and I’d like to give him a warm welcome here at ITW. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his interesting journey to getting published here in the U.S. and about his new release.
Here is a short synopsis for Nothing But The Truth:
A young cocaine dealer is gunned down at the door of his apartment on the outskirts of downtown Helsinki, Finland. Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamäki and his homicide team find the trigger man but need the help of a witness to try to figure who was working behind the scenes. The witness is torn between her principles and her desire to keep her family safe. How much should an ordinary citizen sacrifice for the benefit of society as a whole?
My understanding is that you were a crime reporter before you began a career in writing, and that your primary job currently is in this field. This would seem to be an excellent background for writing crime novels. So, I’m curious, how have your years in reporting about crime influenced/effected your creative crime writing?
Without the crime reporter background, I would not have become a novelist. Following crime cases gives me a lot of ideas and also information on how the police work. My novels are categorized in Finland as “realistic police novels” so this kind of info is essential. On the other hand this realism also makes me to leave some ideas out as they might not be “realistic” enough. Crime reporting certainly helps. Now I’m working at Finnish Channel 3 News, but when I began writing in the 90’s I was working at Helsingin Sanomat. Since the 1950’s at least half a dozen Finnish crime novelists have background at the Helsingin Sanomat crime desk.
You began writing as an experiment to see if you could do it. At what point did you realize writing crime novels was something you wanted to pursue for the long term?
This happened around 2002-3. My first novel in 1996 got good reviews, but our kids were young at that time and there was not as much time for writing. The second novel (first in Takamäki-series) was published in 2001 and after a few books, it got a little bit easier. The main thing is that writing still has to be fun and enjoyable.
You also co-wrote a tv-series based on your series. How was writing for television compared to writing novels?
In novels, the author has the control of the story, but in movies and tv the director has this control along with the producer. The whole tv-process is much slower. First drafts of the scripts were written in 2002, but the show was not on TV until 2006. Plots in the one hour shows cannot be as complicated as in novels, but writing TV-dialogue is not that different. Like in a book, every line has to either take the plot forward or describe the character.
You have achieved some success with your novels in Finland, winning the 2009 Crime Novel of the Year Award, and you have actually written 14 books, but this is only your third U.S. release. I find your route to U.S. publication rather fascinating, given you have come here through a small press, Ice Cold Crime, started by your brother Jouko. How did this all come about and how is it working with family as your publisher?
It started on a vacation on a Greek island around 2006. I was watching the Takamaki tv-show from a dvd with my brother Jouko. At that time two of my books had been translated in German, but it seemed to be quite difficult to get them translated into English. We developed the idea for a few years and around 2008 my brother got tired in his job in Wall Street banking. He set up the publishing company which has now published three of my books and one from Harri Nykanen. Around this time in 2012 there will three more authors published. I have had good relations with publishers, but never this good, so the family thing is a big plus here.
Your books are obviously written in Finnish and require translation into English. Do you find that your stories translate the way you want them to? Do you feel anything gets lost in the transition from one language to another?
Something gets always lost, but something is added. The main thing is that policemen are quite similar from their mindset all around the world. This makes crime novels understandable and readable anywhere. It doesn’t matter if the story is situated in the US, Kongo or Finland. My translator Peter Ylitalo Leppa has lived in Finland so he understands the way Finnish people think and has done a great job on the translations. Some names we have changed as they were thought to be too difficult for English readers. Also we added some descriptions of Helsinki to the English versions. Every book-reading Finn knows what the Finnish House of Parliament looks like, but American readers don’t. Dialects and slang can be sometimes quite difficult, but not impossible.
Your books comprise a series following the same main cast of characters. Writing a series myself, I always like to hear how other authors handle writing about the same people on an ongoing basis. What do you like most and find difficult about this kind of writing? Do you see yourself getting to an eventual end with this series?
There are four characters who have appeared in all Takamaki books: lieutenant Takamaki himself, undercovercop Suhonen, Suhonen’s friend, a smalltime crook Salmela, and crime reporter Rompotti. During the years some have been added and some left. My books don’t go very deeply into the private lives of the detectives, but of course they have to have character arcs. Changes have not been very dramatic. One of the most interesting parts has been developing the story between Suhonen and Salmela.
One of the main ideas is that modern police work is team work. In real life there aren’t anymore of those super detectives who solve the crimes on their own. I try to reflect this.
End to the series? Hard to say.
Your writing style is very straight forward, stark, with a dry slice of humor. This lends itself well to writing crime fiction, but I think most authors have their favorite authors whom they look up to or wish they could write “as good as.” Do you have any authors who fit this description?
I can name two. My friend and ex-colleague Harri Nykanen pushed me into crime writing at Helsingin Sanomat. At that time he had written around ten books and is the author of hugely popular Raid-series in Finland. The first of these has been published in 2010 by Ice Cold Crime. Some of my style grew from his style of writing. The other favorite is John Grisham. I admire his way of constructing the plots and building the suspense.
Having written for a number of years in Finland and now having readers in the U.S., do you find any differences between the readership in each country?
This is hard to tell. I’ve actually never seen any “reader surveys” on my Finnish books. Crime fiction is for those who want to be entertained and who want to get a “safe” look into the harder side of life.
Scandavanian crime novels have seen a growing popularity in the U.S., thanks in part to Steig Laarson’s books. What do you think is the appeal?
I think it is partly the conflict. The Nordic countries are regarded generally quite safe, not as “crime scenes”. Maybe this way readers can find the settings intriguing. Most of the Nordic stories are also so called “believable” murder stories, not international thrillers. And also there are quite a few good writers – for example in Finland only a handful have ever been translated into English, much more in German.
What are your future plans? Do you have any other stories up your sleeve beyond your current series?
For now I’m sticking with the Takamaki stories and crime reporting. The world of crime seems to be developing fast and pushes constantly into new topics. In my opinion crime is a sort of a black mirror of the society which magnifies the phenomenon going on. One of the biggest in Finland lately has been increased selfishness, which is good for writing, but bad for the society. The good thing in having several main characters on the police detective team is that allows variations. For example in the latest Takamaki-book published this June in Finland detective Anna Joutsamo plays the main role. In the earlier ones Takamaki or Suhonen have been in the leads.
I’ ve done news stories for newspapers, tv, radio and websites. On the fiction side, I’ve written novels, short stories, tv series, radioplays and even a couple of comic stories. But I’ve never written a theatre play, so that would be interesting.
In 25 words or less, tell us what the Helsinki Homicide series is all about.
Realism: The world is a hard place, but it can always get worse.
Jarkko Sipila is a Finnish author and journalist. He has reported on Finnish crime for more than 20 years, has written 14 books, several radio plays and co‐wrote a TV‐series based on the Takamaki books. Through realistic characters and story lines, he explores current topics surrounding life in contemporary Finland.
Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall won Finland’s 2009 Crime Novel of the Year Award. In 2010 it was published in English. Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance was published also in 2010. His books have been translated in German and the first in Italian will come out 2011.
For more information about Jarkko, you can read about him and his books at his website.