Inspector Kari Vaara is in charge of a small police station in remote Lapland, in the north of Finland. His new wife Kate, who is American and ten years younger than Kari, is a senior manager of one of the local luxury winter sports resorts in the area. They are about to celebrate Christmas together when, shockingly, the brutally murdered body of a lovely film starlet is found in the snowy hillside, just outside the small village where Kari was born and raised. As Kari processes the crime scene and questions the locals, who include his own parents, he realises that the case is more horrific than he at first thought, and in addition a media time-bomb.
Kari is an extremely competent investigator, carrying his crime-scene kit in the boot of the car. Rapidly, he and the three or four detectives who have not yet left for their Christmas vacations start their investigation, following up leads with a quick efficiency driven by the ghastly nature of the crime. Sufia, the victim, turns out to have been staying at the exclusive resort Kate manages, and from the state of her room seems to have been indulging in alcohol-fuelled sex binges. The dead woman’s phone and address book soon lead Kari to suspect Seppo, a local playboy who is the long-term companion of Kari’s first wife, Heli. At this point, Kari’s boss, the disembodied national chief of police in Helsinki, tries to remove Kari from the investigation, but because of the remoteness of the crime-scene and the lack of available replacements in the holiday season, Kari manages to stay in command.
Events begin to spiral out of control. Kate is injured, and the circumstances of the murder are coming closer and closer not only to Kari but also to his dependable colleague Valtteri. Sufia’s father, who comes with his wife to identify and claim the body, is bombastic and demanding, adding to the emotional pressures on Kari. His head is constantly whirring with permutations and possibilities for who might have committed this awful crime, and how. At the same time, the local population feels the annual strain of the almost 24-hour darkness, and Kate begins to crack up at living in such an isolated place in a country where she can’t speak the language.
There are many terrific things about this book. First and foremost, it’s a great and believable account of life as it is lived in this part of Lapland: one really becomes immersed in the lives and attitudes of these tough and hardy people who live in such a harsh environment. Kari is also an interesting, introspective character, though I found his wife Kate exceedingly irritating. The investigation is exciting and puzzling for about three-quarters of the book.
I’m afraid I found that the whole edifice fell apart somewhat at the end. I just could not believe in about half of the various scenarios that either happened or were supposed to have happened. The murderer and the method of the crime don’t ring true to me, and the role of the father again seems somewhat false. The Helsinki-based police chief becomes less convincing, especially at the end, and there is one scene where Kate seems to be a completely different person from her character and demeanour before and afterwards. For me, though, the most glaring omission in the book is that we don’t feel for the victim. Sufia never comes alive in any sense: the fact that she was mutilated by her family as a child is told in an upfront manner but nobody sympathises or seems to think it is a barbaric crime – it is just presented as a cultural ritual that everyone undergoes. The young woman has been killed in a horrific way, again described in unflinching terms, but we never get to know much about her life or why she ended up making the choices that she did. This makes a big gap at the heart of this novel.
The author, James Thompson, is an American who has lived in Finland for ten years, according to the publisher information accompanying the book. He writes so well and convincingly of a country he clearly loves and a way of life of people that he has observed extremely well. However, something about the way in which the protagonist “talks” to the reader about the way the Finns think and act seems rather as if it is being observed objectively from the outside, and analysed, in a way that someone who really is Finnish would not do, as these things would be second nature.
I did enjoy this well-written novel and will be eager to read another by this author. However, I felt that there were several flaws in Snow Angels which a couple of rewrites might have improved; the author is not very good at writing female characters; and the solution to the mystery was over-elaborate and clunky.
Other reviews of Snow Angels can be found at: