Book review: Against the Wall by Jarkko Sipila

Against the Wall
(Helsinki Homicide #1 in English translation, #8 in series)
by Jarkko Sipila
Translated by Peter Ylitalo Leppa
Ice Cold Crime, 2009 (originally published in 2008)

When I read this novel I was under the impression that it was the first in the Helsinki Homicide series, but during my research for writing this review I discover that it is in fact the eighth installment. This explains a lot, as the characters, while laconically sketched, seem to have a certain established rapport and personalities that would seem odd if they were being introduced for the first time. I presume it was decided to translate this particular title first as it won the 2009 Finnish crime novel of the year award, but I am sure readers would prefer to be able to consume the books in the order they were written!

This is a novel that does not hang about. The action begins when an undercover cop, Suhonen, accidentally gets caught out while searching a “model’s” house by her returning boyfriend, a career criminal. Suhonen manages to talk himself out of this dilemma by a clever ruse, but soon finds himself with another dangerous assignment, that of tracking down the perpetrators of the murder of a man left in a garage that seems to be a professional hit. Suhonen’s boss is Lt Kari Takamaki, head of the violent crimes unit, who seems kind of iconic and world-weary, but who is only briefly sketched in this novel. For similar reasons, I found it quite hard to distinguish the various cops, though one is a woman so easier to follow – she’s keener on doing things by the book than most of her colleagues.

The plot itself is fairly typical of a good police procedural of the Ed McBain type. There’s a smuggling component, a junkie informant, a prison subplot, villains shifting allegiances, and an unexpected personal connection between the victim and the criminals that is vital to the police in solving the case. It is all perfectly readable and solid, but I found it slightly on the superficial side, I suspect because coming to an ensemble-style book this late on in a series, it is hard to identify with the various characters. The novel is not as good as the Sjowall-Wahloo/McBain style which it sort of emulates (for example in providing glimpses of the characters’ personal lives as well as detailing the investigation) though in a more hard-boiled way, but it is enjoyable enough to make me want to pursue more in the series at some point. Two other titles are translated into US editions and all three are available to UK readers in e-form though not print.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel.

Other reviews of Against the Wall are at: International Noir Fiction, Scandinavian crime fiction (Barbara Fister), Mystery*File, Northern Light and Finnish & Scandinavian review.
About the book at the Ice Cold Crime website (PDF).

Author’s website (English language version).

10 thoughts on “Book review: Against the Wall by Jarkko Sipila

  1. Very annoying this habit of translating out of order. I think i’ll put this one on the maybe pile…sounds good but not great and I’ve got lots of great ones to read first.

  2. Maxine – Thanks for the excellent review. I’ve found the very same thing about some ensemble other series. The later one moves in the series, the more it seems is assumed about one’s knowledge of the characters. That’s what makes series a bit tricky as opposed to standalones. I’ll probably take a look at this although as Bernadette says, there’s a lot of wonderful stuff right now just clamouring for my reading attention…
    And honestly, I do wonder about translating a series out of order. I know there must be reasons publishers do that. As you say, if a novel wins an award for example, it may sell more than the first or second novel in the same series which got less attention. Still, I wish that wouldn’t happen…

  3. I’ve read the three now in English – all translated out of order – and have found (perhaps as in the Ed McBain timeless tradition) that there isn’t as much of a series arc component as you often find in series like this. The characters don’t go through much change from book to book, at least so far as I noticed. That can be drawback, in that there is less character development and growth, but it’s actually rather helpful when reading out of order.

    I also appreciate that the publisher has included a character list – at least in the print versions. Many of the names are similar enough (and yet unfamiliar enough) to mix up easily.

    The translations also seem very good – though in this particular book I noticed a colloquial term that tipped me off that the translator is most likely a Minnesotan. (Here we say “hot dish” where elsewhere, in the US, at least, people would say “casserole.”)

    • Fascinating linguistic point, Barbara. I wonder if the constant winking in the latest Lackberg (The Hidden Child) is something similar – a local habit (or tic!), perhaps?

  4. Happy Birthday Maxine! May you have a good one with family and friends — and, of course, a plethora of very good, very well-written (without gratuitous violence) mysteries, global, of course.
    And a bit of good news which should transport you — virtually, of course — to Bari, Italy: Gianrico Carofiglio is putting out a fourth book with his attorney hero, but then again you read so quickly that you’ve probably read this one already!

    • thanks, Kathy! The Carofiglio has been in my Amazon queue for a while ;-), I think it is finally “out” this week.

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