Book Review: Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

JCW2 Silence by Jan Costin Wagner
Translated by Anthea Bell
Harvill Secker

Silence begins with the description of a murder that took place in 1974, in which a young teenage girl disappeared while riding her bicycle in the Finnish countryside. Her body is eventually found in a nearby lake. The main detective investigating the case is Antsi Ketola, and his failure to find the killer has haunted him ever since.

The main novel opens 33 years later, on the day of Ketola’s retirement. He is given a party by his colleagues, including detective Kimmo Joentaa, whom English-language readers met in the author’s previous novel Ice Moon.  Ketola asks Joentaa to go with him to the archive in the basement of the police station to look for a model of the scene of the old crime that Ketola had made at the time. He wants to take it home with him before he leaves the force, so he tells the younger man about the old case.

Six months later, a bicycle is found near the cross marking the disappearance of Pia, the girl who was killed so many years before. Joentaa and his colleagues soon discover that it belongs to a 13-year-old girl who had been on her way to a sports class. Her parents are devastated as it gradually sinks in that their daughter has disappeared. Naturally, the police wonder if the two cases might be related, and Joentaa asks Ketola to help with the investigation.

Silence is a quietly compelling book, dwelling on the consequences of life’s losses and disappointments. Several of the characters are coming to terms with the deaths of children or spouses, and it transpires that Ketola himself has a son who is very disturbed. As may be inferred from the title, most of the characters suffer their pain in internal reflection, sometimes for many years. Others keep silent about nastier secrets, and this is rather hard for the reader to bear, as the consequences of silence are that someone can live a life surrounded by vulnerable and innocent people, and that crimes can proliferate in ways that are not hinted at in this novel, but are all-too obvious, and too awful to contemplate. This overshadows the book, making it almost intolerable to read – and I mean this as a compliment. Yet the novel does not have the haunting other-worldly quality of Ice Moon. Also, the irascibly funny characterisation of Ketola is not reprised in Silence: he’s eccentric, but somehow not the same person as the man portrayed previously.  Nor is the outcome of the second (modern-day) crime entirely convincing. But compared with your average crime novel, Silence certainly stands out from the crowd and must surely be among the strongest of the genre published (in English) this year, not least by its ability to portray the pressures arising from years-long guilt and unhappiness.


I am very grateful to Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book. Her review of it is here.

Silence has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps .

Jan Costin Wagner is a German national who lives part of his time in Finland. Read more about him here and here (includes a review of his novel The Winter of the Lions, not yet translated into English).