James Thompson became Finland’s best and most popular representative in the rise of Nordic noir with his internationally published novel, Snow Angels. It 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. The fourth book in the series, Helsinki Blood, was published in March, 2013 to rave reviews. It is a compelling and outstanding novel that can be read as a stand alone or in sequence, and I review it here. Thompson grew up in Kentucky and has lived in Finland for fifteen years. He is also a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and holds a Master’s degree from The University of Helsinki. The first three books in his Inspector Vaara series have been optioned for film.
James met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about Finnish culture and crime fiction.
Tell us about Helsinki Blood.
My managing editor at Putnam does this so much better than me. I’ll just give you her catalog copy:
The exceptional fourth thriller in the Edgar-nominated series featuring Inspector Kari Vaara.
Kari Vaara is recovering from the physical and emotional toll of solving the Lisbet Söderlund 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.
As Kari works his new case, a past one comes back to haunt him when powerful enemies return to settle unfinished business. In a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, he is propelled toward a reckoning in which the stakes are life or death . . . and only the victors will be left standing.
There is a sense of isolation about Vaara in the novel. To what extent is he already internally isolated and what does this say about him and his sense of his own cultural position?
How many people are in on a secret? Answer: one. Vaara likes to keep things close. He’s not a sharing and caring kind of guy. He’s internally isolated but comfortable with it, prefers it. He’s in most ways a traditional Finnish man, and that includes what you refer to as isolation, but what he would think of as only a normal sense of privacy.
Henry James wrote, ‘We go to Europe to become Americanised.’ Is Helsinki a self-imposed exile and has it Americanised you?
I’m not a very big Henry James fan, and anyway, the world has moved on since he wrote that. There is no deep-seated reason for me living here. The wind just blew me this way, and I never left. It’s not in exile. I could pick up and leave tomorrow. I never intended to stay this long. I seldom intend anything, as far as life plans go. I simply had no reason to leave, but incentives to stay.
Finland offered me advantages that I didn’t have in the U.S. For instance, I earned a Master’s degree from the University of Helsinki. The same degree from an American university of the same calibre would have cost about $200,000. It cost me nothing. In fact, I received monthly support from the government. It wasn’t much, but they in effect paid me to earn a Master’s. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Entrance is a competition. Being accepted into a department at the university means several hundred people sit down in a room and take a test. A fraction are admitted. The rest cry big tears. It’s a competition.
Prior to studying, I always earned a decent middle-class living and had free health care. After my education was completed, I quickly became an established author here. A couple years before I did so internationally. No, living here hasn’t Americanized me. Quite the opposite. I’ve adapted and acclimated to Finnish life. I’m considered a Nordic author.
How close to your heart is Vaara and to what extent is he a self-saboteur?
We have some similarities in temperament. Do I like him? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We agree on some things, disagree on others. He isn’t my alter-ego. If he’s a self-saboteur, it’s because he tries to do the right thing, but like most of us, doesn’t always know what the right thing is. He’s frequently wrong and makes poor choices because of it.
How much of Kentucky lurks between the lines of Helsinki in your novels?
I’m from Appalachia (I point this out because culture in the hill country of the east is different than that of the overall more affluent life in the rolling meadows of Western Kentucky). I see similarities between the Eastern KY and Finnish culture, at least as culture in KY was when I was growing up. An innate toughness and pride in self-sufficiency. A sense of personal honor and responsibility.
A prime example of similarity would be religion. In Snow Angels, I wrote about Finnish Laestadians. Their beliefs and historical background are more similar to the area in Eastern Kentucky where I grew up than to any other Fundamentalist Christians in the world. An academic fact. So it was easy for me to understand them and write about them.
Do you think much crime fiction sanitises crime?
How could exposing crime, especially in the dark and realistic way I portray it, and the horrid ways criminals pay for their sins, sanitize crime? Gangster rap, related music videos and the portrayal of drug dealers getting filthy rich, getting all the women, etc., glorifies gangs and gangbangers at times. But even so—perhaps not in music, but in commercial storytelling—those glorified for their crimes and excesses almost invariably end badly.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I don’t know what to think about it, and whatever they say, I don’t think anyone else does either. Contrary to popular belief, e-publishing serves established authors better than first time writers. Note that I don’t call them authors. Writing a book, slapping a cover on it and selling it on Amazon does not make you an author.
I think self-publishing often works against people publishing their first works, because they’re simply not ready, haven’t mastered their craft. It has caused what I liken to a Sargasso Sea of over a million digital texts, probably two million by year end, most of which are awful, and are sucking the sea dry, turning it to cyber-mush.
Writing is unlike other art-forms because of the isolation, the lack of positive feedback. If you can play half-assed guitar and sing a little, you can go to an open mike night. Your friends will come, give you some support, a pat on the back, an incentive to continue. Some motivation to press on. Writers don’t get that. They just sit alone and bleed into the keyboard. They don’t get the girls (or boys). They don’t the spend same amount of time with their friends and family as most people. And most people are under the mistaken impression that if a writer had talent, said writer would be published and so is just a jackass squandering away life for no discernible reason.
Self-publishing has replaced the vanity press. Self-publishing offers that support and motivation that writers lacked. Writer points at book on computer screen: “Look Ma, I published a book.” An industry has developed: gurus and their seminars (or webinars), companies converting manuscripts to e-books, marketers and PR people, graph artists, editors—the list is miles long—everything a traditional publisher does for an author has to be paid for by a self-published writer.
All these disparate entities work hard to convince every writer that he/she has enormous talent and has created a masterpiece that will be a great success. They have to in order to make money. And just often enough to fuel the myth, an unknown writer self-publishes a bestseller. So, as far as producing better writers, I think e-publishing is awful. Writers need those years of sitting alone bleeding into the keyboard to hone their craft and develop unique voices, and publishing too soon is ruining writers with potential.
The well-established author can do without a trad-pub, because people just want their books and don’t care who publishes them, and their royalties are far higher. Just yesterday, however, I read an article with some bestselling authors that tried self-publishing, but discovered pitfalls that have made them consider signing with a major publisher again.
How much does addiction play a part in the kind of crimes and characters you write about?
Statistically, across the Nordic region, Finns are the top abusers of any mind-altering substance you can think of. Plus, the suicide rate is sky-high. It seems Finns have an innate desire for oblivion. That said, I think it may be that Finns simply keep more accurate statistics than the other Nordic countries, something at which Finns excel.
As far as substance abuse affecting character actions and plot, I think very little. Many Finns drink a lot. Vaara uses drugs to control pain, but chooses to accept a certain amount of pain rather than take stronger painkillers, to avoid flawed (or rather more seriously flawed) judgment. What you read about drinking in my novels isn’t unusual. Many of the main characters are sociopaths and/or have psychotic tendencies. They’re emotionally damaged. If they were teetotallers, I think they would make the same choices.
Europe is drowning in a sea of alcohol and has been for a millennium at least. Watch the series Madmen and observe the amount of alcohol the characters drink. Yet they thrive financially, as did the nation at that time. A good friend worked in that business and in that atmosphere and he tells me it’s entirely accurate. I asked him how they managed to work while constantly drunk. He didn’t know. They just did.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
It’s entirely accurate. A writer must not waver. A writer must be like a crow perched in a tree observing anything and everything, absorbing it, and be fearless when writing. Everything and everyone is subservient to the story. Only the story matters. Others will see themselves in stories whether it’s true or not. Feelings get hurt. Bubbles, both personal and cultural burst. Stories cause anger because of the treatment of themes or the opinions and attitudes of characters. None of this must matter. The actions of the characters must ring true. The story must ring true. Only these things should be considerations in the creation of a story.
What advice would you give to yourself a young man?
I know no more now than I did then. I have none.
Thank you Richard
Thank you Jim for an insightful and great interview.
Find James Thompson’s ‘Helsinki Blood’ in hardcover format at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Books-A-Million, and IndieBound, and in both hardcover and eBook formats at Barnes & Noble. (Kindle format coming soon at Amazon.com).