Bartender, bouncer, construction worker, photographer, rare coin dealer, soldier and wrestling announcer–add to these the title of AUTHOR. Jim Thompson has led a varied career, one taking him from his native Kentucky to Finland where he has lived for over a decade, and a publishing contract with northern Europe’s largest publisher, WSOY, for a series of political thrillers and crime stories. His first novel, Across the Green Line, appeared in 2008, in Finnish, under the title Jerusalemin veri. His second book, the crime novel Snow Angels (Lumienkelit), was released in spring 2009. Another thriller, The True Name of God (Jumalan nimeen), was published in March 2010.
With Snow Angels, Thompson introduces Inspector Vaara, the focus of this interview. Of Snow Angels, a contributor to Booklist declared it an “outstanding series debut,” and Publishers Weekly found it a “noirish thriller” that “offers a bleak look at the ravages of [Finland’s] long, dark winter as well as intriguing glimpses of Finnish culture.”
Thompson has gone one to become one of the big guns in Nordic crime fiction. His 2011 Lucifer’s Tears, is, according to Publishers Weekly, “Stellar…. Thompson elegantly threads Finland’s compelling national history with Vaara’s own demons in this taut, emotionally wrought novel.” Booklist declared it “impossible to put down.” And Kirkus Reviews got over its snarkiness to note, “Nazi collaboration, government cover-ups, kinky sex, a baby daughter waiting impatiently to be born and a vigilante-minded hero who talks back to his boss more irreverently than Dirty Harry. What more could you want?” And the Washington Post thought that “the haunted, trouble-prone Vaara is an intriguing character, one who recalls Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.”
In his 2012 addition to the Vaara series, Helsinki White, Booklist commetned on its timeliness to events on the ground in Scandinavia: “This was one of the first Scandinavian crime novels to be published after Norwegian Anders Breivik’s shooting spree at a youth camp in 2011, which resulted in 69 deaths, and in that context, the novel’s themes of hate, racism, and politics ring especially true… A must-read for fans of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.” Likewise, Publishers Weekly declared, “Thompson deftly explores moral gray areas in this all too topical novel.”
Jim, your descriptions of Finland bear eerie resemblances to reminders of my own youth in northwestern Oregon, where the Finns of Astoria, Oregon, had their own fishing subculture among the redneck lumber crew. Would you describe your connection to Finland, and in this case, Lapland?
In broader terms, my Inspector Vaara series is set in Finland, and I’ve lived here, in Helsinki, for twelve years. I came here with a Finnish girl, the relationship didn’t last, but by then my life was here: work, friends, the university, etc., so I stayed. Over time, Finland just became home. I would describe my connection to this country as unbreakable. Even if I left today, this place would always be a part of me. Specifically, the first book in the series and the book here in question, Snow Angels, is set in Arctic Lapland, in the small town of Kittilä, near the ski resort of Levi. I became interested in it as a setting while on a ski vacation there.
It’s one of the most extreme locales I can imagine. Arctic winter is an incredible experience. The brutal cold. The barren, snow-covered landscape. The months of constant winter darkness. As I wrote in Snow, “it’s like being in a desert made of snow instead of sand.” Winter in Helsinki usually isn’t as severe, but often tough nonetheless. Finnish winter has an attraction that I can’t explain at the moment. I’ve come to feel great affection for it, and miss it in the warmer months.
In Snow, setting as character was unavoidable. Winter here is part of us, affects every aspect of life, how we view life, goes a long way toward shaping who we are. I believe that in good books, setting has to be this way. Setting largely determines worldview. If you can tell the same story whether it’s set in Chicago or Bangladesh, I can’t imagine that it’s much of a story.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I would say that setting affects almost every word that I write. When I write, I picture something like a movie in my head, except it has five senses, and I just write down what I experience. Setting is so ingrained in my mental imagery that I seldom even have to think about how to portray it.
How does Inspector Vaara interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Inspector Vaara?
My protagonist, Kari Vaara, grew up in the small town Snow Angels is set in. Like most Finns, he has a love/hate relationship with his environment, the cold and darkness of winter. But he realizes that it’s a part of him, that for him living in the Arctic is no more or less than a fish swimming in water.
I understand that your series began in Finland, that you are something of a celebrity there and that your books are initially published in Finnish. Amazing. Can you fill us in on that aspect?
My career as an author began in Finland. Snow Angels was my second book published here, and it was published in Finnish before being released in English. I’ve had a great deal of feedback, many reviews, most of them positive. With regard to setting and portrayal of culture, I don’t think I’ve ever been criticized by reviewers for inaccuracy. Snow discusses social problems—violence, mental illness, alcoholism—and vocalizing these things has disturbed some people. I remember one reviewer from Kittilä was upset because she felt that no one would ever want to visit there again after reading my portrayal of it. However, a local newspaper gave me a positive review, and a few people from the area have said to me that I hit the nail on the head, and thanked me for saying these things out loud.
Of the novels you have written set in Finland, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I think this excerpt is a good illustration of the the way setting comes into play in Snow Angels.
“All I can see from here is snow. Valtteri’s headlights are on to illuminate the crime scene, so I leave mine on too. They cut a swath through the darkness, and I see Valtteri standing twenty yards ahead of me with Jussi, Antti and Aslak. I leave the comfort of the heated car and take the two fishing tackle boxes I use for a crime kit from the trunk.
“Valtteri wades toward me through the snow. It’s deep, frozen hard on the surface but powdery underneath, and trudging through it makes him lurch until he reaches the driveway. ‘Don’t go over there yet,’ he says.
“’Is it that bad?’
“‘Just take a second and brace yourself.’
“Valtteri is a devout Laestadian and to my mind over-obsessed with his strict, revivalist version of Lutheranism, but he’s a good man and a good officer. If having eight kids and going to church every Sunday and most evenings makes him happy, it’s ok by me. I turn on a flashlight and start toward the crime scene.
“When I get about five yards away, I see a naked corpse embedded in the snow. I’m certain it’s Sufia Elmi. When I see what’s been done to her, I understand why Valtteri warned me. I’ve investigated more than a few homicides, but never seen anything so cruel. I set down the fishing tackle boxes and take a moment to steady myself.
“Judging by the indentations in the snow, it looks like the killer parked, then either dragged Sufia or forced her to crawl away from the car. The snow is about three feet deep and she’s sunk about half that distance into it. She managed to thrash enough to make a snow angel. Her black body is ensconced in white snow stained with red blood. In places, blood has spattered and sprayed two yards away from her. Her corpse is starting to cool, and silver frost is forming on her dark skin, making it shimmer.”
I have about a bazillion favorite writers, but the author I’ve absorbed the most from about relating spirit and place (nicely said) is hands down Graham Greene.
What’s next for Inspector Vaara?
The protagonist and his wife move to Helsinki (to the neighborhood I’ve lived in for over a decade), and the protagonist takes a slot in Helsinki homicide.
Jim, thanks very much for taking time to visit us on Scene of the Crime.
Visit Jim Thompson on his home page.