Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nights of Awe

The protagonist of Harri Nykänen's Nights of Awe is named Ariel Kafka, and he's one of two Jewish police officers in Helsinki.

Now, Finland's entire Jewish population is no bigger than a couple of good-sized Long Island bar-mitzvahs, so it's no shock that Jews would be somewhat exotic figures there. Nykänen has Kafka react with head-shaking amusement to well-meaning questions about Jews, and the deadpan humor is of a piece with what Nykänen did so well in Raid and the Blackest Sheep.

Kafka's Jewish identity figures also in the crimes that drive this story, a series of killings of Arabs that eventually involves drugs, trains, cars, Israeli diplomats, the Mossad intelligence service, and friends and others from Kafka's own past. To say too much more would risk spoilers, except that things, as in all good mysteries, are not what they seem, even when you think you've figured out what's what and who's who.

The novel's title refers to the Jewish high holidays, the Days of Awe, when observant Jews repent of their sins. Nykänen presumably intends moral weight, but a character named Kafka needs no help from the calendar to get introspective. The story could have been set any time in the year.
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The book was smoothly translated into English by Kristian London, an American who lives in Helsinki. The fluency of the translation is especially noticeable in the novel's first half, which consists largely of routine police detail and dialogue, where the prose, and not the action, must hold readers' attention.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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25 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I don't believe I've read any Finnish crime fiction yet.

February 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say Harri Nykänen's Raid and the Blackest Sheep is not a bad place to start, though I'm not sure you have a wide range of choices unless you read Finnish or German. There's Matti Joensuu, and the publisher of Raid and the Blackest Sheep has also published at least one other Finnish crime writer. An author named Tappani Bagge has a few short stories in English floating around the Web. He's bit like Nykänen's Raid, I think: deadpan funny.

There's also a Raid television series, and it may be available on DVD from MHz Networks, which broadcast and sells so much international crime on television.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Of course it was going to involve Mossad. You couldn't just have a Jewish detective in Helsinki solving a murder. No. Editorially that would not be permissible.

I suppose you could say contra me and Brian McGilloway, Stu Neville etc. that every mystery we invent involves the IRA or British Intelligence but there's a difference. The IRA or UDA is behind every criminal enterprise in Ireland and they are monitored by MI5 and Garda Special Branch.

I doubt there's even a Mossad Station in Finland but of course they have to drag in the Mossad because not to do so would be to disappoint the punters.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that you're right that there's no Mossad station in Finland, though with the proximity of Russia, one never knows. I will say that if the scenario Nykanen puts forth were to happen, the parachuting in of Mossad agents is plausible. How likely that scenario is is another question.

The latter part of the book, where Mossad comes in, could have been set anywhere.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

An excellent point from Adrian, I think. Dragging in Mossad in the context of that book is just cliche. I know there may be objections to this, but may I also mention Jan Costin Wagner. Yes, he's German, but his novels set in Finland (Ice Moon; Silence; The Winter of the Lions) are very good indeed, the evocation of character and country subtle yet vivid. A prize winner and a deserving one. What possessed the writer of the back cover description of The Winter of the Lions to compare Wagner's detective to Philip Marlowe, I can't imagine, unless it was Finnish vodka, but that goes on my list of "Most Stupid Blurb Comments." Boggles the noggin.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter


I just saw The Silence. I thought it was pretty good. The source material is a German mystery novel - I think - written by someone called Wagner. I dont know if you've covered it here, but like I say, the film was creepy and good.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Philip

Our minds must have been briefly linked in the ether there!

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, why does Wagner's detective get compared to Marlowe? Because every crime writer gets compared to Chandler by lazy reviewers and blubbers, Best just to accept the silliness.

My reluctance to give spoilers inhibits my discussion of the novel. I will say in defense of Nykanen's inclusion of Mossad is that he makes a bit more of it than other authors might have.

If this discussion goes on long enough, I may say the hell with it, give the show away, and let readers enjoy the book for the deadpan procedural that constitutes its first half.

Which Wagner should I read first? Ice Moon is the one about which I've heard good things.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I mention Mossad, and you say, "Wagner. Wagner, Max!"

Come on, you've seen Annie Hall a time or two. You recognize the line.

Did I ever tell you about the time I visited friends in Frankfurt, and that one evening when they had a previous engagement, they sent me to a restaurant called "Adolf Wagner"?

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll look for some Wagner, but my copy of Tumblin' Dice arrived from the Book Depository today. You and Declan Burke are the rear-cover blurbers, though neither of you compares John to Raymond Chandler.

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Nykanen sounds worth reading. Thanks.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Lauren said...

Finally, a book I've read first!

I read this some time ago in German, and *almost* loved it - ordinary Jewish characters are in fairly short supply in European crime fiction, and some of the attempts by Kafka to escape community life I found both funny and accurate. (I've lived in a few places with tiny Jewish communities myself). But the Mossad plot was ridiculous, and unnecessary. It just about made sense by tying everything together with the embassy, rather than launching secret agents out of nowhere, but as you said, the scenario wasn't likely enough to justify all the flim-flam. (And Kafka had a tick too much irritating backstory - annoying family OR tragic romance, but not both, please.)

However, I could live with the Yom Kippur setting, because it did give a rather unusual deadline by which to have everything tied up. (As opposed to long-planned holidays, weddings, or retirements, which I've seen a lot more often.) I think there's a Faye Kellermann story with the same idea, actually, but I can't remember the title.

It's still good, but I'd have liked it to be better. The first half is definitely better than the second.

(And Wagner is good - the author, at least. Not so fond of good ol' Rick.)

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Ariel Kafka? It's a rather literary name for a cop, isn't it? Does Ariel come from The Tempest or from a particular well-known individual who presently resides in what is called a persistent vegetative state?

Nights Of Awe is a great title, in part because of its play on Days Of Awe, although I'm ignorant enough to think Days Of Awe is the title of spaghetti western I watched years ago.

Amazon tells me the original title of Nykänen's book is Ariel. Sounds like a case where the translator has improved on the original. I suspect that happens a lot.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., unless you've forgotten your native tongue, you probably have access to more of Nykanen than we English-speakers do. He's written about thirty books, of which I think just two have been translated into English. I assume that more than just the two have been rendered into German.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I can imagine that Mossad might well find its way into a country in response to a political situation such as the one that lures them to Finland in this book. I'm not sure the stratagem by which they are drawn in is plausible, though. If one accepts it, then that part of the novel almost works as an examination of the moral, ethical and practical hazards of running intelligence operations.

But I think the book's second half is just an exploration of that tiresome question: "How can a people that has suffered so horribly turn around and itself be less than morally pure?" The answer, of course, is easy: that Jews are human. But the question might be new and familiar in a country with such a small Jewish population. And that's where the Yom Kippur setting comes in: The ethical quandaries it presents are supposed to be so pressing that even such a secularized Jew as Ariel Kafka is forced to think about sin and repentance.

I'd say the backstory was a bit crowded, though I found the fate of Kafka's sister touching.

Thanks on both Wagners. I've never listened to an entire opera by Rick, but I like some of the overtures and bits and pieces very much.

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, hmm. No, haven't forgotten, though I no longer think or dream in German and reading feels a tad odd. I'll keep it in mind, but I have a notion it will cost more that way.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'd guess that Nykanen chose the name "Ariel" for its all-purpose resonance. I hadn't thought of it as an invocation of Arial Sharon; that would be a bit crude. But Ariel means "Lion of God" in Hebrew, and it's also a traditional nickname for Jerusalem. More resonance: A minor character has a name that is an echo, conscious or otherwise, of the original, Arabic title of Maimonedes' Guide for the Perplexed.

Nights of Awe might be a bit over-dramatic, but I agree it makes a far better title than Ariel.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, one of the backup quarterbacks for the Philadelphia Eagles NFL football team is named Mike Kafka. I keep waiting for him to be tackled hard, land flat on his back, his limbs flailing helplessly ...

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I.J., if your thirst for Nykanen extends beyond what's available in English, you have more options than some of us.

Dreaming in German would make an evocative title of something.

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

one of the backup quarterbacks for the Philadelphia Eagles NFL football team is named Mike Kafka. I keep waiting for him to be tackled hard, land flat on his back, his limbs flailing helplessly

Don't worry, Peter. Mike will shortly advertise the great new scent by Calvin Kline called 'Metamorphosis' which will save all NFL players from their otherwise appaling fate of turning into...well, there's no need to go into details, is there?

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My imagination is more prosaic than yours. I envision Mike Kafka doing cheaply produced television commercials on local television stations for Philadelphia-area exterminators.

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I'd hate to see the Philidelphia-area exterminated. Where would I comment if that happened?

February 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

There's quite a lot of Nykänen on YouTube, mostly from the TV series based on his work, and all in Finnish, of course.

The theme music of the series is very tasty. It features close-ups of a guitar being plucked. Is music a feature of the books?

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I presume you mean the Raid television series. I don't remember music playing a part in the one Raid novel I've read, and there's no music in Nights of Awe except maybe a reference or two to the mournful tones of some of the prayers.

February 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant "new and unfamiliar" in my reply to Lauren, of course.

February 21, 2012  

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