Title: Helsinki White
Author: James Thompson
Release Date: March 15, 2012
Publisher: Putnam Books
Genre: Crime Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Warning: This review may contain spoilers for Snow Angels and Lucifer’s Tears, the two previous novels in the Inspector Kari Vaara series.
Inspector Kari Vaara knows that his life is about to change drastically. Not only has he agreed to a new position within the Finnish police system, a covert team that will deal with drug dealers and gangsters in unorthodox (and illegal) ways, he’s also recently become a father. What’s more, Kari is about to undergo surgery for a brain tumor, and doesn’t know what is going to happen to him.
Helsinki White is a continuation of the Inspector Kari Vaara series, but in many ways, it is a complete departure from the first two novels in the series. For one, Kari is no longer working within the system. As Kate, his wife, says, “That makes you a dirty cop.” Though Kari initially doesn’t agree with her misgivings, it doesn’t take him long to see that he may have made the wrong choice. There is a lot of violence in this novel, and much of it is perpetrated by Kari and his team, leaving the reader conflicted. While he is able to accomplish more outside the system, is this really the way Kari wants to do things?
Indeed, that moral dilemma lies at the center of Helsinki White. What is Kari becoming? Where are his principles? It’s difficult to see where that line is, especially since police officers are so often hemmed in by rules and regulations. Kari has the ability to work around those issues, which should be great in principle. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple in practice.
This novel also differs from its two predecessors because of the overt racism contained within its pages. Thompson has made it clear from the beginning of the series that racism is a serious issue in present-day Finland, and Kari has encountered it more than once. However, it was always simmering under the surface. In Helsinki White, that rage against minorities and immigrants has exploded, mirroring the situation in Finland right now. Kari continually encounters it, overt and very ugly. It makes the novel difficult to read, just because it’s so blatant and unpalatable. Yet I appreciate Thompson’s daring in writing a novel that reflects a real-life situation, especially a controversial one, so realistically.
As always, Thompson’s prose is spare and clear, though some aspects of it have changed in Helsinki White. Mirroring Kari’s departure from conventional ways of doing his job as a policeman, the language has also morphed. It’s more crass, less gentle than it was previously. It’s as if Thompson’s prose in previous books was coated with soft, absorbing snow, and now that coating has been ripped away. As a result, his words are bare, raw at times.
While Helsinki White wasn’t my favorite installment in the series, I appreciated that Thompson wasn’t afraid to tackle such serious issues. Kari is much more difficult to like in this book, due to various reasons I won’t disclose in this review. Additionally, there are many asides describing weaponry and technology, and while I understand wanting the reader to be informed about Kari’s team’s resources, this became old quickly. Additionally, it didn’t flow quite as well as previous novels, and came across as a bit choppy. Still, this series is an impressive one, and Thompson did an impressive job writing a bleak, somewhat hopeless novel.