By George Ebey
James Thompson is the author of three previous novels in his explosive Finnish-based crime series featuring Inspector Kari Vaara. Now he is back with his fourth installment, HELSINKI BLOOD.
This time around, Inspector Vaara is recovering from the physical and emotional toll of solving his previous case when he’s approached with a plea: an Estonian woman begs him to find her daughter, Loviise, a young woman with Down syndrome who was promised work and a better life in Finland . . . and has since disappeared.
One more missing girl is a drop in the barrel for a police department that is understaffed and overburdened, but for Kari, the case is personal: it’s a chance for redemption, to help the victims his failed black-ops unit was intended to save, and to prove to his estranged wife, Kate, that he’s still the man he once was. His search will lead him from the glittering world of Helsinki’s high-class clubs to the darkest circles of Finland’s underground trade in trafficked women . . . and straight into the path of Loviise’s captors, who may be some of the most untouchable people in the country.
I recently got in touch with Jim who provided plenty of insight in the world of HELSINKI BLOOD and what it takes to write a great crime story.
HELSINKI BLOOD is your fourth novel featuring Inspector Kari Vaara. Can you tell us a little about his background and how he has evolved over the course of the series?
Kari has had a hard go of it. He grew up dirt poor in a small town in the Arctic—the kind of poor where there isn’t always enough food—and was also sorely abused by his father. This instilled in him a desire to help those who can’t help themselves. A compulsive desire, and sometimes he goes far past what is reasonable, or even legal, to accomplish it. His first wife walked out on him. He was a beat cop in Helsinki and was shot in the line of duty while involved in an act of heroism. She was gone when he came home from the hospital.
The bullet wrecked his knee and the chief of police had to retire him or promote him, as he couldn’t continue as a patrol cop. Kari had earned his Master’s in criminal justice and met that qualification, so he was promoted to inspector. He asked to be assigned to his home town. It was a quiet job, running the small police force there, almost a form of retirement, and he stayed, perhaps not happy, but content enough, for a number of years. Then he met Kate. They fell in love and married quickly. Trouble also came quickly. A murder case resulted in a number of deaths, Kari was shot again, this time in the face. Kate miscarried twins. They decided to try for a new start, moved to Helsinki, and he worked in the homicide unit.
The national chief of police had dreams of becoming a sort of Finnish J. Edgar Hoover. He needed people to work outside the law to do it. He recruited Kari. He pushed Kari’s buttons, told him he would focus on saving women from forced prostitution in the slave trade. Kari’s compulsion to help the helpless sucked him in. But he had been lied to. His black ops were about the acquisition of wealth and power, he had inadvertently, an inch at a time, become a collaborator and he was stuck in a position he didn’t want to be in and couldn’t find a way out. I’m avoiding spoilers from this point on.
Health problems changed him and his thinking and behavior, so much so that he became a man without limits. His team solved crimes, never failed to do so, but at any cost, no matter who got hurt. He and Kate had a child, a girl named Anu. The changes in him hurt his marriage. Over time, he began to recover, but his actions had not only changed him but made him a powerful man, in the invisible way that corruption often carries with it. As he told his subordinate, Milo, when he was contemplating murder: “Once you pull the trigger, you can’t call that bullet home again.” I think that’s a good metaphor for Kari’s life. I’ll leave you with that.
What drew you to crime fiction and how do you go about researching your books?
Write what you love to read, they say. I’ve loved thrillers and crime novels since I was a child. I’ve read thousands of them.
I’ve written a couple thrillers that have never been published in English. Thrillers usually have a ‘world hangs in the balance’ plot, and finding ways to create those plots is difficult. A new way to save the world, you might say. Research is deep and arduous, the research materials often difficult to find or classified information. Actually, the difficulty makes it fun, but it’s easy to spend 1000-2000 hours of research just preparing to write a thriller.
Crime novels are much easier to research, because the popularity of shows like CSI has resulted in a massive amount of information about crime-solving procedure have become available on the internet. I can generally find whatever I need to know in a matter of minutes. I’ve also developed a large network of consultants. While designing LUCIFER’S TEARS, for instance, I was helped considerably by historians, an expert in the Finnish Civil War and the Second World War, and a member of the Helsinki Homicide Unit who is one of the world’s leading experts in blood spatter. Interacting with experts in their fields is also a lot of fun.
With the series taking place in Finland, what aspects of this location make it the perfect setting for your stories?
If it’s possible to take a plot, write it in one setting, then take the same plot and set it somewhere else, it’s by nature a poor story. Characters are products of their environments. Their choices, when confronted by conflict, are determined by character. Here, our lives revolve around winter. We have summers, but blink and you might miss them. Environment is such a strong element in the Inspector Vaara series that I consider it a character in and of itself as much as a setting. Harsh environments produce hardened people.
You have described your style as a cross between Scandinavian crime and U.S. pulp. Can you tell us a little about the challenges and rewards of combining these two genres?
I’ve lived in Finland for fifteen years now. I’ve acclimated. This place has gone a long way toward shaping my worldview. I’m a Nordic writer. I can’t say that it either rewards or challenges. It simply is. Life here has shaped and changed my writing. In Nordic crime fiction, cultural and social issues are often as important, sometimes more important, than the crime itself. The novels are often slow and tend to meander. U.S. hard crime and pulp drives faster and hits harder. That’s the stuff I grew up reading. The result in my writing, I think, is that I’ve absorbed the attention paid to the social and cultural, while writing novels that move fast and hit hard. I never worked toward this consciously; it’s just a hybrid that resulted from my literary and life experiences.
Do you have any plans to branch out from this series in the near future or can we expect to see Inspector Vaara again soon?
HELSINKI BLOOD came out in the U.S. on March 21st. I’ve contracted with Putnam for two more, for a total of six. I like writing them. I hope the series continues for some time to come. I’ll branch out at some point as well, have had recent thoughts about it. In fact, I’ve written three other books, co-authored another, and have one that remains unpublished. Plus, I’m co-screenwriter of SNOW ANGLES, the film. The first three books in the series have been optioned. And I’m managing editor of HELSINKI NOIR, an upcoming anthology and part of the award-winning series by Akashic. I also review and write quite a few journalistic pieces on politics and social issues.I keep busy.
James Thompson is Finland’s best and most popular representative in the rise of Nordic noir. His debut internatonal was selected as one of BOOKLIST’S Best Crime Novel Debuts of the Year and nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and a Strand Critics Award. His novel, LUCIFER’S TEARS, has starred reviews from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, BOOKLIST, and KIRKUS, and was selected as one of the best novels of the year by KIRKUS. HELSINKI WHITE was released to critical acclaim in 2012. The fourth in the series, HELSINKI BLOOD, published in March, 2013 has received rave reviews.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.