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Wagner, Jan Costin - 'Light in a Dark House' (translated by Anthea Bell)
Paperback: 336 pages (July 2014) Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 0099572672

"A man calmly goes up to the fourteenth floor of a hotel, says good morning to the catering ladies in a friendly way, of course stands on the roof terrace and enjoys the view. Then a second man comes along, the two of them talk. Then one of them falls off the roof and the other goes home. The end."

Finland, Turku.
Detective Kimmo Joentaa's girlfriend "Larissa" comes and goes. Kimmo knows when she is back because she turns the light out and waits for him in darkness. She plays ice hockey on the lake and eats ice cream but she doesn't answer Kimmo's questions about herself. She works as a prostitute. She cries in her sleep. One autumn evening, at the police chief's birthday party, she greets the chief with "Hello, August." They all think. Who's August? And the police chief takes Kimmo to one side and asks him why he's brought a "tart" to his party. Kimmo wakes next morning to an empty house. No Larissa. A phone call from a police colleague interrupts his search; they need to get to the local hospital immediately, a patient has been murdered.
The victim was in her fifties and had been in a coma with a serious brain injury ever since she was found by the roadside. There was nothing on her to say who she was and, despite her photo being in the paper for several days after she was found, no-one came forward to identify her. Kimmo is increasingly distracted by recollections of his wife's death in this same hospital. Memories of being in the corridors and rooms preoccupy him as does Larissa's disappearance. To the annoyance of his colleagues, he returns home where there is no answer from Larissa's phone and no email. But Kimmo does confirm his nagging recollection: Larissa's house key, with its giraffe key-ring, is lying on the table. He emails her, tells her he is worried and that he will "leave the giraffe under the apple tree". Meanwhile there has been little progress on the case: no-one saw anything and no-one knows why the victim's room was unlocked. This time a TV broadcast of the dead woman's picture stirs up calls from all over the country claiming to know her, a crazy mix of places and identities. There are no relevant "missing persons" reports. But during the morning meeting the head of Forensics informs the police team that the dead woman's bed sheet displayed large quantities of lysozome, lachrymal fluid that is to say "tears". In short, her killer had been crying...

In Jan Costin Wagner's fourth "Joentaa" crime novel, LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE, two separate murder investigations converge on a small town set amongst Finland's lakes and forests. Kimmo Joentaa is hunting the weeping killer of a coma victim and Helsinki detectives Westerberg (THE WINTER OF THE LIONS) and Seppo are tracing the link between a dead businessman in Helsinki and a dead politician in Auno. All three detectives are far away from their home patch, so what has brought them to the town of Karjasaari? The book's narrative is interspersed with entries from two diaries: one from 1985 and the other from the present day. It's a risky technique, but in Wagner's hands it enhances his cool, off-centre, tone as he weaves a story of abuse, damage and consequences, beautifully translated by Anthea Bell ("I try to be as invisible as possible: I believe that you should try to find the author's voice and put yourself into the author's mind").

Wagner is German but sets his crime fiction in his wife's native Finland. And this book does remind me of the qualities of some of my favourite Nordic crime fiction. It embraces the lives and the individuality of its characters alongside the crime solving; ordinary people can be driven to criminal acts and detectives are human too. On the other hand, some people are just plain bad.

I have seen the feature-film remake of THE SILENCE, Wagner's second Joentaa novel, but LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE is the first of his novels that I have read. So I can vouch for there being no annoying narrative gaps in reading out of sequence. But I also see what I have been missing and intend to catch up with the rest of Jan Costin Wagner's Finnish crime series as soon as possible. If you love the mystery of character as much as the mystery of crime set in a wintry Scandinavian landscape then I think you will savour LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE as much as I did.

Read another review of LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE.

Lynn Harvey, England
October 2014

Lynn blogs at Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 12/10/2014 08:45