Book review: Lucifer’s Tears by James Thompson

Lucifer’s Tears
by James Thompson
Harper Collins (Avon), 2011

“Finland. The ninth and innermost circle of hell. A frozen lake of blood and guilt formed from Lucifer’s tears, turned to ice by the flapping of his leathery wings.” Inspector Kari Vaara muses on his homeland as he is about to embark on the night shift in Helsinki’s homicide division. He thinks back to events last year (described in Snow Angels, the first book in this series), in which he solved a series of crimes while based in Lapland in the far north, but at some personal cost, resulting in his transfer to Helsinki at his wife Kate’s request. Kate is manager of a large hotel and about to have the couple’s first child. She’s American; her brother and sister are due to come and stay to help her after the baby is born.

Vaara is not very happy about living in Helsinki or the imminent arrival of his in-laws, but is soon plunged into a series of crime investigations, as well as being assigned a new partner, Milo, who is a bit of a psychopath as well as being formidably intelligent so can crack any code and analyse blood-spatter patterns without the need for a computer program. The main crime that the two encounter, and that forms the backbone of the book, is one in which a young woman has been horribly tortured and killed while visiting her riding-instructor lover. Vaara’s boss is convinced the lover is responsible for the death, but Vaara is less sure, as there is no apparent motive. Instead, he begins to investigate the woman’s husband, a rich businessman, and his secretary, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the victim.

The pace never lets up. Other cases that Vaara is working on include an investigation into a possible cover-up of Finnish atrocities towards the Jews in World War II; the death of a drinker in a bar when a couple of over-eager bouncers throw him out; and another drunk man who is threatening the young pupils at a school. In each case, Vaara provides us with a potted history of the background: for example, when he is called out to the school shooting, the reader is told how many previous such events there have been in Finland, when they happened, who was the perpetrator and what was the outcome. This style of writing is forgiveable so long as it is kept brief, but it becomes very laboured during the WW2 plot, possibly because of the complexity of Finland-Russia-Germany geopolitical relationships and the number of times everyone changed sides within and outside the country. Basically, there is enough material here for a book in its own right about these possible Finnish WW2 crimes; trying to cram it all in here with several other plots made it all too superficial and unengaging.

As well as Vaara’s action-packed job (I’ve only touched on the many storylines in this review, some of which are extremely crudely described), he has to deal with the relatives from hell and with a permanent headache. He’s seeing a therapist who explores some possible reasons for Vaara’s suffering, based on events in his past which seem to have been set aside for a future book. Later on, Vaara turns out to have several brothers, one of whom is a neurologist (!). This brother arranges for some tests to see if the headaches have a physical cause. A final theme running through the book is the relationship between Vaara and his wife Kate – the two are very much in love but find it hard to confide in each other. The imminent arrival of the baby exacerbates their anxiety and desire to “not let down” the other.

Lucifer’s Tears is a very busy book, and despite its crude, up-front language and failure to shy from any gory details, is enjoyably readable. I have to say that the plot creaks quite a bit, though – the outcome of the main murder case is not only resolved in a rather stupid fashion, but it leaves Vaara set up in a heavily signalled new role for the future, with a couple of cardboard cut-out helpers with particular skills. Vaara and Kate are left on the brink in their personal lives in the final chapter, also – all is up for grabs for the next book. I still haven’t decided whether I’ll read it or not. On the plus side are the Finland setting and the brisk, no-nonsense pace. On the minus side are the clunky prose, the plot (each situation as it arises has a predictable outcome, as well as everything just falling into Vaara’s lap), and the author’s didactic style of interjecting a Finnish history or geography lesson at every available opportunity, in a somewhat aggressive manner that brooks no argument from the reader!

I bought this book as a Christmas present to myself. On the back cover is written “perfect for fans of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo” – which, together with the front-cover sticker “the next big thing in Nordic crime” and endorsement from Michael Connelly, is covering all the bases ;-). [Update: of course, the author has nothing to do with the cover or wording the publisher chooses.]

Other reviews of Lucifer’s Tears: The Mystery Reader, Material Witness, Nordic Bookblog, Killer Reads and Murder by Type.

My review of Snow Angels, the first in this series (Lucifer’s Tears is the second).

Interview with the author at Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog. In a reversal of the book’s plot, James Thompson is an American who married a Finn and now lives in Finland (hence the novel is not originally written in Finnish, yet provides an authentic setting).