Before I read “Snow Angels,” I knew next to nothing about Finland and Finns — except, thanks to the tricky obits we had to write in journalism school, that Finnish names contain lots of consonants.
Then I read this murder mystery by James Thompson, an American expatriate with a convert’s fascination with a foreign culture. While I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about the Finnish national psyche and the sort of climate and culture that drive one of the world’s highest suicide rates, I sure don’t feel like I’ve been to school.
Instead of lecturing or giving long recitations of dry facts, Thompson weaves his lessons into the story of the murder of a Somalian refugee in Finland. It’s because of his skill and artistry that, the entire time I was reading the book, I felt like I was, physically, in a cold, dark place.
“Snow Angels” is from Thompson’s Inspector Vaara series. Kari Vaara is a small-town policeman (with a big-city past) 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, and the story falls during kaamos, the two-week period at the depth of the Finnish winter when, basically, the sun doesn’t shine.
Vaara has a pregnant American wife who isn’t used to such bleakness, so things are already pretty stressful when the beautiful movie star Sufia Elmi is savagely murdered on a reindeer farm (just one of the details that weave Thompson’s richly colored tapestry). Adding to his burden are that the case comes to involve his ex-wife and the man for whom she left Vaara 13 years before.
I predicted the killer and motive well before the end of the book. Then I predicted another killer and motive. And then … well, suffice it to say that when Thompson finally presented his resolution, I was stunned, nonplussed — and thoroughly impressed with his storytelling skills, because it all fit together perfectly. But not too perfectly.
It’s a great read.