Bitter Lemon Press, 304 pages, $14.95
Thank goodness for places like Iceland and Lapland! They make provocative settings for crime novels. Somehow it spurs the creative mind when a crime is placed somewhere cold and dark for a lot of the year. Claustrophobia, snow madness, icy veins, dark thoughts seem to flow naturally from this source. Indeed, Katja Ivar has used this environment to great advantage.
“Evil Things” is set in Finland in 1952. The psychological and physical remnants of WWII have not been totally dismissed. Finland shares an extensive border with the USSR, already on the other side of an intensifying Cold War. This makes a great background for disgraced police officer Hella Mauzer, relegated to Ivalo in Lapland, for her sins committed in Helsinki. For her continuing sins, Hella is assigned to investigate a missing person in the tiny community of Käärmela, scant miles from the Soviet border.
It is about the time when the night is about to claim the day, when the snows will banish all color from the land, when one either loves “cozy” quarters or goes mad from “claustrophic” ones. Hella’s bosses would rather she binned a letter written by Irja Walteri, the village priest’s young wife in Käärmela, about the missing Erno Jokinen. Instead, Hella packs her backpack and accepts a ride from a would-be suitor, the unsuitable Kukoyakka, to the remote village.
Soon Hella learns that Erno has left a grandson, Kalle, currently being taken care of by Irja. It was only by luck that Kalle was found by a disagreeable relative and kept from starving. Although Hella is sympathetic to Kalle’s dilemma, she has no great social graces and as a police officer must assume everyone is a suspect or is hiding something, so she stomps her way around the village interviewing the people, including the disagreeable relative and a disagreeable neighbor. Of course her hosts, the priest, Father Timo, and the lovely and hospitable Irja, are also subjected to brusque questioning.
When a body, or pieces thereof, is discovered, it turns out to be that of a woman. Where’s Erno? Why does the woman’s head, one of the pieces found, have a bullet wound in it? There are deeper things afoot than just an old man missing in the Lapland woods.
As Hella tromps around the bleak landscape, she has time to muse about what brought her to this low point in her life and career. She lost a post in Helsinki about which she could have been passionate, she lost a lover about whom she was passionate, she lost her whole family in a tragedy. As author Ivar recounts Hella’s musings, these stories gradually emerge into the light. What results is a story of Hella’s courage and humanity, both of which are tested as she tries to bring justice to the little Lapland community.
This is a book whose true grit is not revealed until the end. It seems to meander and fall short of the mark, but Ivar draws everything in at the end. The end is cheer-worthy.