Kati Hiekkapelto (b. 1970) has an interesting background. She hails from the northern city of Oulu, and studied fine art and special education before working with immigrant children as a special needs teacher. She lives on a 200-year-old farm in the countryside, which means she gets to spend the long, dark, and cold Finnish winters not only writing, but also chopping wood and shovelling snow. Hiekkapelto speaks fluent Hungarian, thanks to having lived in the Hungarian-speaking part of Serbia.
Hiekkapelto’s genre is crime fiction, the Nordic noir, and her heroine Anna Fekete, a 30-something detective whose family escaped Hungarian speaking Serbia to an unnamed city somewhere in northern Finland during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. The first book in the Fekete series, The Hummingbird (Kolibri), was published in Finnish by Otava in 2013 and in English a year later. The other two parts to come out so far are The Defenceless (Suojattomat, 2014), and The Exiled (Tumma, 2016). Hiekkapelto won the prize for the best detective novel, awarded by The Finnish Whodunnit Society, in 2015.
Has anyone written a crime novel with a perfectly happy detective as the protagonist? I doubt it, because it would probably make for a very boring book! (I’m not counting Hercule Poirot in here, because I’m not sure he is fully human…) Anna is not nearly as badly off as her colleague Esko, a chain smoking, heavy drinking middle-aged man with a tendency towards racial slurs and unrealised dreams of moving to a cottage in the middle of nowhere, but she is very alone. Her mother has moved back to Serbia and her only brother, who lives nearby, is an alcoholic and needs constant looking after. The closest thing she has to a friend are her colleagues Sari, another detective, and Linnea, a pathologist, as well as local pizzeria owners Farzad and Maalik, who’ve come to Finland as immigrants, presumably from Pakistan. Unlike Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, who I feel is always at the brink of falling apart both mentally and physically, Anna’s unhappiness doesn’t render her incapable in the slightest. She might have more cigarettes than she intended, but she will do her regular skiing laps on the iced-over sea, and she will solve whichever case comes her way.
In The Defenceless, she is working on cases that at first seem separate but turn out to be strands of a bigger case. Sammy is a young Christian man from Pakistan who has escaped near-certain death to Europe. He’s been denied asylum, and now sleeps rough on streets and in recycling containers and medicates himself with buprenorphine, which is used to treat heroin addicts. We are instantly made to feel sympathy towards him—he hates his addiction, having to pick pockets to get his fix, and wishes for nothing but to become a productive member of the Finnish society and not to have to return to Pakistan. Whilst visiting a drugs supplier, he witnesses the death of a neighbour, an old man, and of the drug seller himself. Unfortunately for Anna, he is so high he can’t recall any events between that point and being arrested by the police who storm the flat.
Elsewhere in the city, a Hungarian au pair is driving home to her host family on the icy and dark roads, and hits an old man who she could almost swear was already laying on the ground. To top off the very unfortunate block of flats, an old lady has also gone missing from her home in the same building that the drug supplier died in. Soon enough a pair of young girls sneaking for a smoke find a patch soaked with blood in the snowy forest. Anna’s colleague Esko, on the other hand, is running after members of the Black Cobra street gang with his rattling lungs, trying single-handedly to stop its expansion from Denmark and Sweden to Finland.
In foreign media, the Nordic welfare state is often portrayed as an idyll, whereas those following discussion in Finland would find the personal and societal malaise described in the novel more familiar. Hiekkapelto depicts the Finland that is now, not the Finland that was in the past, or the country of saunas, lakes, and social welfare that still exists in people’s imaginations. The icy and slippery streets people would rather avoid by staying in, the perpetual darkness outside of closed curtains, too dark to be looked at really, the winter that sends a few migrating birds your way to get your hopes up, then closes around you again, refusing to let go. The people who don’t know their neighbours. The country that, for the first time, is faced with illegal immigrants that simply disappear from all official records. People who are defenceless faced with the system, with their addictions and shortcomings, with violence. The novel also asks many questions about justice. Is the law always right, or is it acceptable to lie to save yourself from certain death? Hiekkapelto fits well into the Finnish literary tradition of books that offer social critique.
The name of the novel is intriguing from Anna’s point of view. Having escaped war, she is now safe, in a powerful social position and doesn’t have to defend herself from anyone anymore. She positively resists any contact or association with Gabriella, the Hungarian au pair, who speaks her mother tongue and perhaps reminds her of her past. She pushes people around her away as if she didn’t need them, or goes for the men she can’t have a relationship with. The investigation and her brother’s alcoholism make her wonder about her own origin and home. Does home always have to be a country? Could it also be a person?
All in all a very confidently written book in the genre, can’t wait to read more from her.
Hiekkapelto is currently on tour in the UK!
- The International Crime Fiction Convention in Bristol on 19-22 May
- Panel discussion titled Criminal Worlds on 13 May at the British Library (Peter James will also participate)
English reviews of The Defenceless:
Hiekkapelto’s books are translated into English by David Hackston and published by Orenda Books
Works published in / Rights sold to:
Germany (Heyne / Random House)
Italy (Atmosphere Libri)
The Netherlands (A. W. Bruna)
UK (Arcadia Books, then Orenda Books)
Czech Republic (Host Brno)
Germany (Heyne / Random House)
World English Audio (Audible)
For enquiries contact Otava’s Foreign Rights Manager Leenastiina Kakko