By Layton Green
If you enjoy international crime novels, and you have not yet heard of Leena Lehtolainen, then you’re in for a treat. Highly regarded in Europe, Lehtolainen is Finland’s bestselling female crime author, and her titles have sold millions of copies in twenty-nine languages, as well as winning a variety of awards.
Lehtolainen skyrocketed to fame with My First Murder, a series featuring a down-to-earth, music-loving female detective named Maria Kallio. The series has been adapted for television, and remains her most popular creation.
However, she is not a one-series-wonder: Leena has also published a nonfiction work on figure skating (voted sports book of the year in Finland in 2010), literary fiction, juvenile fiction (her first novel was published when she was all of twelve years old), and a trilogy of quirky international thrillers starring a female bodyguard, the first of which was recently released in the United States.
Lehtolainen is a gracious, widely traveled, and fascinating author. Here’s a peek into her world.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Leena. We’re thrilled to have you. I confess it’s the first time I’ve read a book set in Finland, and I loved the milieu. Do you live (or did you grow up) close to where the book is set?
Thank you, Layton. Yes, I grew up in Eastern Finland and live now near the sea and the Kopparnäs area. In my books the milieus are often real, but everything else is invented. I like to describe the Finnish nature so that people hopefully can feel that they really have visited new places with a book as a travel guide.
Nordic crime novels have taken the world by storm in recent years. Is there something in the air that churns out great mystery and thriller novelists?
The Nordic countries have been thought of as the best places in the world: safe, clean welfare states. We Nordic writers want to question this image. Maybe it is our long winters—anything bad can be imagined to happen in these dark days. Maybe it is our light summers: we really have contrasts here, and it inspires a writer.
Who are some of your favorite crime novelists, both at home and abroad?
I have always respected writers like P. D. James and Sara Paretsky, who taught me that there can be a lot more in a crime novel than a mystery. The Finnish Eeva Tenhunen, whose books I made a licentiate thesis, showed how to combine suspense and humor. Of my current colleagues, I admire Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.
I’m curious; what got you started as a writer? How long did it take you to get published?
I started very young; I was twelve when my first novel for young people was published. Professionally I have been writing since 1993, and I have never had any problems getting published here in Finland. I am happy to make a living as a writer, which is not easy in a country with only 5.5 million inhabitants.
Which aspect of writing (character, plot, setting, etc.) comes easiest to you? Hardest?
I love to plan new characters, but I would not say it is easy. The settings often just come—when I visit an interesting place, I decide to use it. The plotting takes time, and I really have to remember to kill my darlings when editing. Actually, maybe the hardest thing about writing is letting the story go, realizing when it is ready and time to give it to the editor.
Let’s talk about your work. The idea of using a female bodyguard (Hilja Ilveskero) as a protagonist in THE BODYGUARD series is a fantastic one. How did you come up with it?
The first idea of a female bodyguard came to my mind as early as 2000, when Finland got a female president (Tarja Halonen) and I wondered who would guard her. I did research on the profession in Finland, but found very few details. There are no schools for that profession; many of the bodyguards are former policemen, etc. So I just started to think about what kind of a woman would like to become a bodyguard, where would she have studied, what would drive her. I also wanted to write about lynxes, and so I gave her a special relationship with those fascinating animals.
I also loved the international intrigue in THE BODYGUARD. Is politics something you pay attention to on a routine basis, or did you conduct a ton of research for the book?
Politics, both national and international, interest me a lot and I follow the political situation closely. Of course, themes in THE BODYGUARD like the Russian gas line in the Nordic Sea, needed research, and I spoke with politicians, historians, and also visited a nature park with lynxes in Ähtäri. One of the greatest things about being a writer is that you can learn new things with the research. I really like doing research and meeting experts.
Was it difficult or liberating to pull away from your mega-bestselling Maria Kallio novels and write a new series?
It was liberating, because Maria is a policewoman and she has to follow the rules of her profession, while Hilja moves in the gray areas between the law and the crime. Hilja is also a bit crazy and can do unexpected things, nearly anything, so I really enjoyed creating her character.
Speaking of your mega-bestselling Maria Kallio series, why do you think it has resonated so well with readers? What type of reader do you think is drawn to it?
I guess one of the main reasons is that she is not a superhuman. She is somebody who could live next door or be your friend. People have been able to follow her career from her first murder to more complicated crimes and from a constable to the team leader. People can identify with her life, both professionally and personally. My experience is that very many kinds of readers identify with her, including male readers.
Have you considered using both Maria and Hilja in the same novel? It could be interesting.
Not yet, but I never say never. If a perfect idea for both of them comes around, why not?
What advice would you pass on to new authors?
Read a lot. Don’t be afraid of influences: you will find your own voice only by knowing what others have done. Then trust your own voice. Do not imitate others.
What are you reading right now?
I am going to Shanghai at the end of the month, and preparing myself by reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.
Which book by another author do you wish you would have written?
I have never thought that. Wow. Maybe Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A modern version.
What can we look forward to from Leena Lehtolainen?
More books about both Maria Kallio and Hilja Ilveskero, I hope. And a fact book about my passion, figure skating, which I am writing with two other writers.