The October 2015 death of Henning Mankell was shocking news to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction; particularly to fans of Mankell's brooding Detective Wallander. Like Stieg Larsson (who died in 2010 without seeing the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the remainder of his Millennium Trilogy), Mankell built on the foundation laid by writing team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The couple is widely regarded as pioneering "Nordic noir" in the 1960s. Today's generation of Scandinavian crime novelists may rely less on social commentary and more on Hollywood-style action, but the realism that has made the genre so popular is an enduring feature of these books. There is no better example of this stark, riveting form of fiction that than by Finnish author Jarkko Sipilä.
Sipilä is well known in Finland for his twenty-plus years as a crime journalist for national Channel 3 TV News. In addition to this full-time career, Sipilä managed to write 20 novels, several radio plays, and a 2006 television series called Detectives Don't Sing.
Sipilä's protagonist, Detective Kari Takamäki, works in Helsinki's violent crimes unit. Unlike more solitary, melancholy Nordic detectives, Takamäki is married with children. The time his job steals from his family life creates guilt, but not enough to make him consider giving up his career. Takamäki has one goal: taking down the bad guy.
Asked if he is often compared to the Swedish Larsson and Mankell, Sipilä says, "Not really. When I began the Helsinki Homicide series in Finnish in 2001, I decided that I wanted to write realistic crime novels. Crimes would be the kind that really happen in Helsinki. I also wanted to focus on police work - how crimes are solved - instead of the policemens' and womens' personal lives. Like in reality, the crimes are never solved by one [person], but [rather] teamwork. So they are different from Larsson's or Mankell's books."
Sipilä's latest book, Behind Closed Doors (released in October 2015 by Ice Cold Crime), was originally published in Finland in 2012. It was translated into English for the American audience. Sipilä admits that some changes are required to better suit the U.S. audience. "We have to add some descriptions," he says. "For example, 100% of my Finnish readers know what the Finnish Parliament House or Helsinki Railway Station looks like, but not too many U.S. readers have that knowledge. Also, some Finnish names are quite difficult to foreigners and we have changed some of the longest ones. The storylines remain the same."
While Ice Cold Crime is owned by Sipilä's brother Jouko, the publisher currently works with seven authors in total, not just Jarkko. The company is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota - a state that, combined with North Dakota, has the highest per capita population of Scandinavian Americans. This creates an enthusiastic, built-in audience for Sipilä who says that, while sales in Finland still lead, those in the U.S. are closing fast.
To an outsider, it may seem strange that the Scandinavian region, which averages less than half the murder rate of the U.S., would be so receptive to crime novels. Sipilä explains it this way: "Unfortunately, we have everything from the biker gangs, to the Russian drug smugglers, to school shootings. Add also a large amount of alcohol-related violence." Even in Finland, he says, "Crime is an unpleasant phenomenon. Finnish crime novels are good, exciting stories that describe the darker side that normal readers never see."
In much Scandinavian crime fiction, the weather and environment become almost living characters. For Sipilä it affects both his process and his plotlines. "All of my books happen in fall, usually during four to five days. Why? I think it is because I write in October and November. The sun really doesn't shine then which makes it a good time for crime stories."
Like Mankell who claimed his writing was influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and Stieg Larsson who reportedly based computer hacker Lisbeth Salander on his vision of an adult Pippi Longstocking, Sipilä's influences are interesting. "I like John Grisham's earlier books," he says. "They are well written, have interesting plots, and I also like the way he builds tension. I could mention also Ed McBain, plus a Finnish author and friend Harri Nykänen."
Yet while Sjowall and Wahloo skewered Sweden's welfare state in their crime novels, and Larsson openly expressed his hatred of facism, racism and sexism - Sipilä is less political. "I don't like to preach about [social issues] like some writers do. It's better to hide them in the layers of the stories and let the reader realize [the issues] themselves."
Fans of Sipilä can learn about his tour schedule, which includes the U.S., on the news page of his web site. As to the next Helsinki Homicide book, it is currently underway. "It will be called Helsinki Homicide: The American," says Sipilä. "The story begins in a snowy supermarket parking lot in Eastern Helsinki. The driver of a snow plow finds a body in a pile of snow. It is the American."
In the meantime, Helsinki Homicide: Behind Closed Doors can be purchased from IceColdCrime.com, or Amazon. PnC