Living hell in Helsinki

The Healer
Antti Tuomainen Harvill Secker, £12.99

Scandinavian crime fiction’s success goes on and on. This new thriller takes the typical search for a missing person and sets it in a Finland of the future.

The setting is the book’s defining feature. Dire warnings from the present are imagined as having come to pass as rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions combine to put the hell in Helsinki as the city goes largely under water.

The trek to the higher ground in Northern Finland puts property at a premium and civilisation is on the ropes. Those who cannot afford to move to the north of the country are left struggling with rising water levels, vanishing electricity and meagre food supplies. One character takes to the bed with a fever after being bitten by a rat. While the story does not tip into horror, there is a sense that clapped-out urban environments are nipping at everyone’s heels.

Enter Tapani, a lovelorn poet, whose wife, Johanna, has made a mysterious exit and his presumption is that she has been abducted. She is a journalist chasing the story of a serial killer known as The Healer whose killings are rumoured to be motivated by a sense of retribution against those whose wasteful lifestyles have put the environment in peril.

But there is another account that might also be true, namely that an extreme security company is moving through Helsinki by, for instance, killing a family in an apartment block and then selling security/protection to those anxious to avoid a similar fate.

So Johanna disappears and Tapani goes looking for her. This allows for a new spin on the ancient story of a character’s descent into the underworld to recover his life. In terms of a picture of the future it is understandably bleak. The newspaper is too busy staying in the marketplace with a pornographic representation of celebrity culture, so Johanna’s colleagues can do nothing for her. The police have been stripped of resources and are unable to search for the murderer of dozens who may have abducted the journalist hunting his story.

The narrator’s character is persuasively developed from the wistful, gentle poet to the guy who keeps a pistol under his pillow when he’s having his reveries.

As a search and rescue story, we are never given the perspective of the missing person. Tapani is a constant presence in a what is a monorail narrative. It is a very well written book, particularly insofar as it evokes a blasted urban environment, but it is a little too schematic in the telling. That said it is a good blend of crime genre with environmental dystopia and the translation from the Finnish by Lola Rogers is punchy and hard-boiled.


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