Murder in the Land of the Midnight Sun: Mysteries in Finland

Crime fiction is very popular in Finland and has been for many years. The genre has a very large readership and a significant number of writers and devotees – large enough to sustain the Finnish Whodunnit Society, an active organization that publishes a journal of crime fiction – Ruumiin Kulttuuri. It sponsors a "Kouvola" Weekend at which writers, scholars and fans gather to exchange ideas. The Society also sponsors an annual award for the best crime fiction novel. The mystery also has a long pedigree in this beautiful country. The revered author of the first Finnish novel, Aleksis Kivi, in the classic, The Seven Brothers, actually has a closing chapter in which a locked room mystery is solved. The novel was published in 1870 (it is available in English from Amazon).

The "Father" of the Finnish language mystery, however, is Rudolf Richard Ruth who published two small mystery volumes in 1910. He was an interesting character who did work for a time as a private detective but also served jail time for blackmail! Using the pseudonym Rikhard Hornanlinna he published Kellon salaisuus (The Secret of the Clock) and Lahella kuolemaa (A Close Run With Death) featuring a gentleman-amateur sleuth, Max Rudolf, who has a Holmsian flair for disguises and deduction. In 1920 he published Musta tohtori (The Black Doctor) in which a lawyer is the hero and the story is a mixture of horror and romance in the manner of Poe. Under the pen name H.R. Halli he published his classic mystery Yha murhat jatkuivat (And the Murders Went On) focused on the rampant black market of 1920s Helsinki. His last novel, Viidesja viimeinen uhri (The Fifth and Final Victim) employed elements of the fantastic. Unfortunately Ruth’s novels, like almost all the Finnish crime fiction writers’ publications are not available in English.

The very first mystery in Finland, however, was published in Swedish by Harald Selmer-Geeth in 1904. The novel was entitled Min forsta bragd (My First Case). Finland was controlled by Sweden until 1809 when it became a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia and finally acquired independence in 1917. Basically the country has two official languages – Swedish and Finnish although the former is gradually being replaced by the latter.

Another early writer was Jalmari Finne, a theater director/manager who, in 1928, published Verinen lyhty (Blood on the Lantern), set in rural Finland in which a Miss Marple-like character is the crime solver. Soon after he published Kohtalon kasi (The Hand of Fate) in the Gothic style.

One of the most prolific and famous mystery writers was Mika Waltari. He was one of the major Finnish mainstream writers, the author of well-known historical novels (The Egyptian, The Wanderer, The Roman, The Etruscan – all available in English) but is primarily remembered for his creation – Inspector Palmu of the Helsinki Police. In 1939 the curmudgeonly Palmu first appeared in Kuka murhasi rouva Skrofin (Who Killed Mrs. Skrof?). The novel met with enormous success and was followed in 1940 by Komisario Palmun erehdys (Inspector Palmu’s Mistake). All of his mystery novels are redolent of Conan Doyle’s style in that the Inspector has a Dr. Watson-like foil who also narrates the stories. The character of Inspector Palmu is instantly recognizable by most Finns with his bowler hat, scarf and cigar. His novels were made into immensely popular films in the 1960s. Another interesting early author was Aarne Viktor Laitinen (aka Outsider, Aarne Haapakoski) who wrote a number of mysteries but was best known for his series with the characters Kalle-Kusta Korkki and Pekka Liponen. They were contrasting characters, one genial and rustic and the other urban and hard-boiled. A very successful radio series was created based on these two delightful heroes. Marton Taiga was another prolific writer who developed a police procedural series with an inspector W.J. Kairala as a very fat but wily hero.

Tauno Yliruusi (1927-1994) was a playwright and mystery writer who created a radio series called “Murder for Fun” that was popular in Europe in the late 1950s.He also wrote a series featuring Inspector Viktor Suominen.

Other early mystery writers included Tauno Karilas wrote a number of police procedurals after WWII but is most noted for his Nokinen jalki (Soot Marks), a take-off on Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue story. The only successful early distaff author is represented by Kirsti Porras who published three well-turned novels during the war years featuring Helsinki Inspector Kanerva.

A well known Finnish writer - Mauri Sariola - gained fame in the 1950s with his series of Inspector Susikoski mysteries. He was another prolific writer and two of his novels - The Torvick Affair and The Helsinki Affair - are available in English.

Some of the contemporary writers include Paul-Erik Haataja, a creator of at least eight police procedurals in the manner of the 87th Precinct, only set in Helsinki. His more recent novels are set in the north and northeast regions and have a strong environmental theme. Pentti Kirstila has been publishing mysteries since the early 80s and has won Finnish Mystery Writer’s annual award, The Clew of the Year. One of her short stories, "Brown Eyes and Green hair" appears in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (Patricia Craig, editor, Oxford University Press, 2000). Wexi Korhonen is a long-time author who has created an oddball P.I. plagued by ill health. The 2001 winner of The Clew of the Year for the best crime fiction is Harri Nykanen who created a tough tec named Raid who patrols Helsinki’s underworld. His most recent book, Raid ja mustempi lammas (Raid and the Blacker Sheep) also features the indomitable Raid and garnered the Clew award. His novels have led to a very successful 12 episode TV series featuring his hero, Raid.  This television series has been shown in parts of the U.S. Leena Lehtolainen, one of the young female writers has published 7 novels featuring a tough policewoman, Maria Kallio. Her first book, My First Murder was published in 1993 and her most recent, Copper Gloss has been translated into German. Finally there is Matti Joensuu, a policeman who has written 10 detective novels, all police procedurals, set in Helsinki, noteworthy because of their innovative style. His novel, Stone Murders has been translated and published in English (N.Y., St. Martin’s Press, 1987).

Finland is a hotbed of mystery fans and writers and the genre enjoys enormous popularity in Suomi - the Land of the Midnight Sun. Early influences of British and American writers have been replaced by a genuine Finnish imprint that runs to police procedurals and thematic mysteries reflecting current social and economic issues. Unfortunately, most of the work by Finnish writers is inaccessible to an English-reading audience – a great loss indeed.

GJD

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