Finnish crime writers are not as well known in English as their Nordic counterparts. This may now begin to change. “The Healer, ” Antti Tuominen’s third novel, has already won the Clue Award for the best Finnish Crime Novel of the year 2011 and was also shortlisted for the Glass Key Best Scandinavian Crime Novel 2012 (actually won by Eric Valeur’s “ The Seventh Child”). Harvill Secker, the publishers, have already brought Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankel to English language readers.
The Healer is a page turner, a riveting thriller, excellently translated by Lola Rogers, who did such a great job with Sofi Oxanen’s “ Purge” in 2010. Yet it is well outside what would traditionally be regarded as Scandinavian noir. It does however, fit Harvill Secker’s motto of “ Quality International Writing with a Wayward Streak.” In this instance the wayward streak is that this crime novel is set in the near future in a post-apocalyptic Helsinki.
It is a nightmarish dystopia. Climate change has passed the point of no return and global catastrophe is unfolding. Global warming has led to a push north by millions of desperate people. Helsinki is thronged with refugees. It has been raining non-stop for months. Low lying areas are flooded. Electricity supply in some areas has disappeared.
Apartment buildings are looted and abandoned or inhabited by squatters or refugees. Malaria, TB and plague, even Ebola, are commonplace. Law and order is crumbling. Private “ security” firms are emerging to administer their own unofficial brand of justice. There is a panic to leave the city and head north, towards the Arctic Circle, where conditions are not yet as bad.
Against this background Helsinki is being stalked by a serial killer – “The Healer.” In an unusual twist for books of this kind, this killer is neither a sexual predator nor a right wing extremist. The Healer claims to be politically motivated and to be acting on behalf of ordinary people by murdering brutally some of those he deems responsible for contributing to the acceleration of climate change, i.e. senior executives or owners of certain manufacturing companies, together with their families. The overstretched police have been unable to catch him.
The action is packed into several days before Christmas. Tapani Lehtinen, a struggling poet, realises his wife, Johanna, a journalist, is missing. She was researching the activities of The Healer when she disappeared. Indeed the killer had begun to communicate with her by e mail. He begins to search for her, in tandem with a weary, overworked police inspector. The search takes place against the surrealistic landscape of a collapsing city, evocatively described. Tapani gradually uncovers secrets from Johanna’s past, hidden layers that seem to connect her to the murders and the killer.
The plot is clever, with several twists, the pace good, the action constant, the length just about right. The descriptions of Helsinki are compelling, with, as a gloomy background, the thesis that our civilisation is doomed, that environmentally we have gone beyond the tipping point. At one stage in the book the author notes that despite all the gloomy predictions, the oil did not run out by the time of the story and there remained enough to finish the job of destroying the global environment. There is a message there.
The book is not one to forget easily. It would benefit, however, at least for those not familiar with Helsinki, by the inclusion of a map of the city to trace Tapani’s odyssey.
Sean Farrell is a former Irish diplomat whose posts included Ambassador to Estonia, Consul General in Chicago and European Peace Monitor in the former Jugoslavia. He began writing about two years ago. He has contributed non-fiction pieces to the Irish Times, Irish Independent, and Ireland’s Own and has reviewed books for the Irish Independent and RTE. He has a monthly column in the Irish American News. He is currently working on his first novel, a crime thriller.