This is the fifth of six books I need to read to complete the Scandinavian Reading Challenge and is the only one set in Finland.
If there is a Kittilä Tourism Authority I’m guessing James Thompson isn’t on their Christmas card list. In Snow Angels, part police procedural and part observation on Finnish culture and traditions, he has painted a unflattering portrait of the winter holiday resort in the northern part of the country. Against the backdrop of the investigation of a brutal crime Thompson shows us a country with one of the world’s highest suicide rates, where alcoholism is prevalent and resentment and abuse of foreigners is if not universal then fairly widespread. If that were all he showed then the book wouldn’t be much of a read but, using knowledge and experiences gained during his ten years living there, Thompson, who is American by birth, also depicts some of the subtleties of the culture which help to explain why people act the way they do. He also highlights some positive things like the community’s practical and drug-free way of dealing with a resident with mental health issues. For me this exploration of the customs and cultures of the region was the most successful aspect of the book.
The crime in question is the murder and disfigurement of a beautiful Somali immigrant, Sufia Elmi, who had gained some fame as an actress in her adopted country. It is an uncommon crime but Inspector Kari Vaara is confident he can solve it. When evidence points to the new lover of his ex-wife as the murderer things do start to get complicated for Vaara and the investigation spirals out of control fairly early on. At one point Vaara seemed to be following a logical, evidence-based trail but then story then morphed into pondering his series of weird and wacky theories, based more on guesswork than facts. I think this loss of plot strength stemmed from the first-person point of view in which the whole story is told. This POV also provided for some clunky exposition which would have been far more smoothly integrated in a third-person story.
The characters in Snow Angels go a fair way towards making up for the plot problems though. Kari is hiding some demons of his own but not to the point of being a hopeless alcoholic like so many of his fellow fictional detectives. His new marriage to an American woman is portrayed believably, with her difficulties in adapting to the country being thoughtfully depicted. Having once had to go to hospital in a country where I didn’t speak the language I could entirely identify with Kate’s fears and frustration at the way she perceived her treatment in such a circumstance. Most of the minor characters, like the succession of truly horrid people inhabiting Sufia Elmi’s life and Kari’s fellow police officer Valtteri, are also credible even if some of them are abhorrent. I do agree with Maxine at Petrona though that the victim is never really fully fleshed out so it was difficult to become wholly absorbed by finding out what happened to her. The book could have spent less time repeating the horrible mutilations done to her and more time letting us get to know her back story and how she ended up in such horrid circumstances.
Reading this book made me think about the impact of the author’s perspective on storytelling as it’s the only one of the books I’ve read for this challenge written by someone who isn’t Scandinavian by birth. It’ fairly common to read books by ‘outsiders’ set in the US or UK or even Australia but to come across a non-local but knowledgeable perspective of a fairly closed society like this one is fascinating. Overall I enjoyed the read and could forgive some of the plot problems of the debut novel because the setting and characterisations were well realised and I will happily read another story in which they feature. Though I’ll hope it’s summer time and the poor folk get a bit of sunlight in their lives.
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My rating 3/5
Publisher Putnam 
Length 264 pages
Format Uncorrected Bound Proof
Source my collection (bookmooch)