‘Nykänen’s twist on Nordic crime fiction may be the most inventive of the year. Ariel Kafka, a middle-aged bachelor, is a detective in Helsinki (think early Harry Hole) and, as far as he knows, the only Jew on the entire Helsinki police force, which is why he’s picked to head up the investigation of a series of murders that began with two Arabic-looking men who may have been shouting Jewish obscenities as they died. Set during the days leading up to Yom Kippur, this complex tale moves quickly, as Ari attempts to figure it all out. With pressure from his colleagues, police administration, his brother, and the local Jewish community, can he uncover everything before the holiest day in the Jewish calender? The clever combination of classic Jewish themes with the traditions of Nordic crime makes for a refreshing tale with wide appeal. And the subtle humor, combined with a hero who is not completely depressed and alcoholic, makes it even better. Not just for readers of Nordic fiction, this should also be suggested to those who relate to New York Jewish detectives, including Lenny Briscoe (from Law & Order) and John Munch (from Homicide and Law & Order: SVU), as well as readers who enjoy the black humor of Stuart MacBride.’ Booklist
Harri Nykänen, born in Helsinki in 1953, was a well-known crime journalist before turning to fiction. He won the Finnish crime writing award The Clue in 1990 and in 2001. His fiction exposes the local underworld through the eyes of the criminal, the terrorist, and, most recently, from the point of view of an eccentric Helsinki police inspector.
About the Author
Harri Nykanen: Harri Nykanen (born in Helsinki in 1953 ) is a detective novel writer and was a long-time crime journalist for the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. He won the Finnish crime fiction award "The Clue" both in 1990 and in 2001. His stories expose the underworld through the eyes of the criminal, the terrorist and, more recently, from the point of view of an eccentric Helsinki police inspector. He writes four different crime series and has written over 30 novels.
Kristian London: Kristian London lives in Helsinki. Translator of prose (After you, Max (Sinun jälkeesi, Max), Leena Parkkinen (2009), The Trap (Ansa), Marko Leino (2010)) and poetry.
Read an Excerpt
NIGHTS OF AWE
By Harri Nykänen
BITTER LEMON PRESSCopyright © 2004 Harri Nykänen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMen are born, they live, and they die. Few leave any permanent trace of their sojourn. For most, the only memory remains in the photo album gathering dust in the bookcase's bottom cabinet. For some, it's impossible to come up with any reason for their lives, even with a touch of goodwill.
Pehkonen belonged to this latter caste.
If I had been the contemplative type, I would have doubtless dedicated more time to pondering the meaning of his seemingly pointless existence. God alone knew where and why this gadfly had drifted around the earth in the period between his birth and his death, in other words approximately fifty years. I knew a piece here and a fragment there, but as a policeman I just wanted an answer to one question: who killed him?
The late Mr Pehkonen was lying in a recycling dumpster, yesterday's news covering him like a quilt. The early autumn night had been cool, around forty degrees, and a blanket of newspapers was warmer than nothing.
On his head, the deceased wore a bizarre fake-fur hat that looked more like a waterlogged raccoon dog that had been flattened in rush-hour traffic than a piece of headgear. A dark-brown wool scarf had eroded into a rope-like rag around his grimy neck.
There was a deep contusion at his temple, and next to his head sprawled a square-sided cobblestone, a clunker that weighed at least ten pounds. The newspapers mounded into a pillow beneath his head had soaked up the blood that had drained from the wound. The combined odour of printing ink and urine wafted out from the dumpster. As a parting gesture, Pehkonen had done it in his pants.
When I saw the body, the first thing that came to mind was that next morning there would be a newspaper in that exact same paper container reporting about a man who had been found dead in a newspaper container.
Pehkonen's death was as meaningless and insignificant as his life, unless you consider it an achievement to end up a one-column story buried in the inside pages of the national paper and a two-column story in the tabloids. I was sure that somewhere nearby that same day we'd find the guy, who, in a bout of drunken insanity or to assert ownership over a bottle of booze nursed by Pehkonen, had bashed the life out of his pal with a cobblestone. The investigation and the autopsy would be routine in the truest sense of the word. Cremation, an urn paid for by social services chucked into the ground, a couple of handfuls of dirt on top, end of story. What happened to Pehkonen after that was no longer the concern of a detective from the Helsinki police force's Violent Crimes Unit.
The lieutenant on duty had called me about the body, which had been discovered by a paper deliverer, only because he knew I lived right next to where it had been found. The wake-up had come at four-thirty, and I hadn't had time for my morning coffee yet, so I went back to my place. Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
I was usually able to walk to work in peace, but this time I only made it as far as Fredrikinkatu before being stopped.
I don't know where the Rabbi came from, but there he was, suddenly standing right in front of me.
"Shalom, Rabbi Liebstein," I responded. I took a step back, but Liebstein pursued.
I glanced around and understood that the Rabbi's materialization hadn't been a genuine miracle after all.
There was a van parked at the edge of the pavement: the congregation's van, which I should have recognized and spotted before it was too late. Peering out from behind the van's cargo windows was Roni Kordienski, the congregation's combined super, handyman and driver. Liebstein and Kordienski had been carrying an old ornamental cabinet from the nearby antique shop out to the vehicle, and just at that moment my mobile phone had started to ring, causing my vigilance to flag.
"The congregation received it as a donation."
"Excuse me," I said, raising my phone to my ear with an apologetic look.
The caller was my immediate superior at Violent Crime, Chief Detective Huovinen.
I glanced into the Rabbi's expectant eyes.
"We need you pretty fast."
"What is it?"
"Two bodies at Linnunlaulu. One of them in the rail yard. Two tracks are closed, it's holding up the trains. The deceased are most likely foreigners."
"Anyone there yet?"
"Simolin headed out fifteen minutes ago ... and a patrolman has cordoned off the area. Forensics is probably already there by now, too."
"I'm on it."
"Call me when you're en route and I'll fill you in."
You wouldn't have taken Liebstein for a rabbi, not by how he dressed anyway. He was wearing a stylish black wool overcoat, a burgundy silk scarf knotted in an almost bohemian fashion, and gleaming black shoes. Still, at least a fellow Jew would peg him unmistakably for a Jew. He had the broad, furrowed brow of a thinker, and it was easy to imagine him, head tilted, reading the Torah at the synagogue or preaching on the Sabbath. The bridge of his ponderous eyeglasses had chafed tender red gouges into the sides of his nose. The aura of good-natured clumsiness he radiated was, however, an illusion, and I didn't let it fool me. Liebstein dug his nails into his victims with the tenacity of a debt collector.
I didn't have anything against him; he was an amiable and intelligent man. But right now I didn't feel like talking, even amiably and intelligently.
"How are things going at the congregation?"
Good eyesight and quick reflexes had kept me out of the Rabbi's path for over six months. Now some courteous resolve was called for. Otherwise I knew that before I realized it, I'd have made half- or two-thirds promises that I had no intention of keeping.
"Ariel Isaac Kafka," the Rabbi repeated, this time stressing each name. "If you dropped by the synagogue slightly more often to pray, you'd know how things are going there. Can you tell me why you delight me and the other members of the congregation so infrequently with your presence? I saw your uncle just yesterday and we discussed the matter."
Liebstein spoke with an accent, the origin of which was difficult to pinpoint. And that was no wonder, if you knew his background. He was born in Germany, fled from there to Sweden to escape the Nazis, and then moved to Denmark in the 1950s.
"It's the police work ... I'm always busy. As a matter of fact, I was just called to a crime scene. Two bodies."
The Rabbi nodded sympathetically.
"I understand, Ariel, don't think that I don't, even though I was born into a slower age. Everyone is busy these days. The whole world is like an enormous clock whose spring has been wound too tight. I'm afraid that before long its gears are going to start flying off."
My phone rang again, this time in my pocket. I fiddled with it blindly and managed to silence it.
"And the mobile phone. It was meant to be a servant, but it has become the master. It has taken over everywhere, it orders and the servant obeys, he runs and runs until he's out of breath and collapses to the ground ..."
"It's just that my work ..."
The Rabbi raised his forefinger to his lips.
"I understand, I understand," he continued. "You do important work. All of us in the congregation are proud of you. If only we had more frequent opportunities to tell you how proud."
The Rabbi lowered a hand onto my shoulder. His touch felt heavy, almost disapproving, although the expression on his face remained gentle.
"I saw your picture in the paper last week and I told your aunt that, once again, you had solved a serious crime. We consider you a blessing to our congregation and to our small community, which has seen such hardship."
Liebstein was exaggerating. The serious crime was an everyday assault that had led to manslaughter, and the perpetrator had been apprehended thanks to a surveillance-camera photo published in the tabloids, not me.
The Rabbi smiled and hoisted his rimless glasses farther up his nose. The chafed spots itched, and he rubbed them between his thumb and forefinger.
"Your aunt said that you wanted to be a policeman even before you had your bar mitzvah. Is that true?"
I shrugged. Even the Rabbi didn't need to know everything.
He bent over towards me and whispered as if he were divulging a secret.
"I've always liked detective novels."
I instinctively furrowed my brows.
"You're a police officer and Satan will ensure that your work will never end. Evil will always walk at your side. And that's exactly why I've been waiting for you to pay us a visit, to reflect and withdraw even for a moment from all the blackness you encounter in your profession. The soul requires rest, otherwise a person becomes as frail as the ashes of burnt silk paper, and eventually crumbles into the tiniest motes of dust."
"I'll try to come ... I'll come as soon as I can."
"We haven't been able to put together a minyan for three days. Yesterday morning only two members showed up for synagogue."
You needed ten male congregants thirteen years or older for a minyan. Women were not accepted, but this was a topic I didn't feel like delving into. I would have proposed the best and easiest solution to the problem: accept women into the minyan in Finland, as had already been done elsewhere.
I could sense my gaze wandering towards my destination and my feet taking surreptitious steps.
"Rabbi Liebstein," Kordienski interrupted apologetically. "They're waiting for you."
The Rabbi didn't respond, he just looked at me. My mobile began to ring again. Liebstein shook his head and smiled, albeit wanly.
"Have to go, busy busy busy ... some day the spring will snap and all the little gears will ricochet off and people will go mad and start killing one another ... Yamim Noraim. Remember Yom Kippur, Ariel ..."
Liebstein was right: I had to remember. Being born a Jew brought along with it certain responsibilities other than refusing to eat pork. It was almost impossible to skip out on celebrating the Jewish New Year altogether. It began with ten days of repentance, the last of which, Yom Kippur, was the most important. It was then that the entire congregation prayed together and asked for forgiveness for all of their conceivable sins, starting from masturbating and malicious talk.
The Rabbi spread out his hands to illustrate all of the whirling, twirling gears, springs and wheels in the universe being hurled outwards into eternity, and then he followed Kordienski into the shop.
I gave a sigh of relief, and as I passed the van, I checked my reflection in the tinted side window. Short hair, slightly thinning at the crown, sideburns that reached halfway down my ears, a narrow, introverted face and a high, domed forehead.
I hiked up the collar of my brass-buttoned pea coat and took a few hurried steps to ensure my getaway before calling Huovinen.
"Where are you, Ari?"
"Downtown, on my way to Linnunlaulu."
"No, but I'll get there just as fast by tram."
"You know that bridge that crosses the railway tracks?"
I conceded that I did.
"You'll find two very lifeless bodies there. Kind of an unusual case, you'll see what I mean. One of them is in the rail yard beneath the bridge. Just kick things into gear and inform me as soon as something comes up. You can bet the media's going to have a field day with this one ... That bad timing: were you at one of your people's celebrations where we pagans aren't allowed?"
I told him I'd been investigating a corpse that had been found in a recycling dumpster.
"Someone else can take that. Shalom!" Huovinen said, ending the call.
I knew Huovinen so well that I found it impossible to be offended. We had graduated from the academy at the same time. Huovinen had been the best in the class, and I was only the fourth best, which had aroused a general sense of bewilderment among my relatives. Everyone remembered how my brother Eli had been number one in his class and had been accepted to study law on his first try and how my sister Hanna's matriculation papers had been the best in the history of our school.
At that time, the burden that Einstein and Oppenheimer had left for less brilliant Jews like myself had weighed heavily on me.
The bridge was cordoned off with police tape, but the officers who were patrolling the site, radios crackling, recognized me and let me through.
I stopped in the middle of the span and gazed towards downtown.
Beyond the rock face, a maze of train tracks immediately began; it looked like a bunch of ladders had been toppled over in the same direction, stopping at the wall of stone and glass formed by the station and a few other buildings. Above the tracks ran a confusing jumble of electric wires; here and there you could see bright-red warning lights.
A large, ornamental pink wooden villa teetered perilously close to the edge of the high rock face.
A double-height express train approached from downtown; its roof swept past only a couple of yards beneath my feet. I could feel the bridge sway from the mass of the carriages.
On the other side of the bridge's railing hung a six-foot-wide flange of corrugated metal. Yellow danger signs had been attached to it. I glanced over the edge of the railing and saw several uniformed policemen on the tracks. A tent had been erected over the rails, so that the tender morning sensibilities of the commuters on passing trains wouldn't be offended by the sight of the body.
"Kaf ... Ari!"
Detective Mika Simolin was approaching the crime scene
from the direction of the Linnunlaulu villas.
"I went and had a look down below."
Simolin was ten years younger than me. He had only been in Violent Crime for six months and still treated me with a respect that bordered on bashfulness.
"The shooting took place here," Simolin said, indicating a bloodstain on the ground. "Afterwards the killer shoved the body down the slope and jumped or fell from the bridge onto the roof of a train and died instantaneously. I mean the presumed killer," Simolin corrected himself.
The body lay on the slope that descended from the bridge, almost up against the steel mesh fence running above the rails. A green tarp had been draped from the fence to block the view. A CSI named Manner in white overalls was standing next to the body.
"All right if I come over there yet?" I asked.
Manner glanced up.
"Be my guest."
I climbed down with Simolin at my heels and positioned myself a little awkwardly next to the fence. The body was lying on its back, partially hidden in the tall grass. It took a second before I understood what had happened to it. The face was like a mutilated stump from some pagan sacrifice: its nose and ears had been sliced off, and what was left was covered in blood.
Chapter TwoFrom day one as a rookie cop, I had prepared myself for my first encounter with a corpse. I learnt how to look in such a way that I skipped over the most disgusting details. I also learnt how to breathe through my mouth. Relying on these techniques, I made it through my visits to the pathology department and the cabinet of horrors that was the police crime museum.
My first body was, nevertheless, an easy case. It was New Year's Eve, and the evening had started out with a hard freeze. Later that night it had started to warm up and lightly snow. The body was found by a late-night partygoer, and the desk officer ordered me and my partner to the scene.
The deceased, a man of about forty, was lying under a large oak. He was blanketed by driven snow, as if he had pulled a freshly laundered comforter over himself and dozed off to the rustle of the wind in the branches. His eyelids and hair were dusted with powder.
The sight was almost beautiful.
Later I came across much uglier corpses, but I learnt to accept death as part of my job, and violence as part of death.
Although the face of the body lying on the embankment was mutilated, you could still tell that the man it belonged to was young and foreign. He had on black jeans, grey running shoes and a black leather jacket. The Adidas ski-cap he was wearing had hiked up far enough to reveal three small holes in his forehead, a few centimetres apart from each other. The blood trickling from them had converged with the gory mess that was his face.
Excerpted from NIGHTS OF AWE by Harri Nykänen Copyright © 2004 by Harri Nykänen . Excerpted by permission of BITTER LEMON PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There are two Jewish cops in all of Helsinki. One of them, Ari Kafka, a lieutenant in the Violent Crime Unit of the Helsinki police, who makes his debut in this novel, identifies himself as a policeman first, then a Finn, and lastly a Jew. He catches a weird case involving the murder of two Arabs, to begin with, followed by several others. It is not known whether these deaths are related, although they appear to be, or are the result of a drug bust gone bad, gang warfare or even a terrorist plot, when it is learned that the Israeli foreign minister plans a two-day visit during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of course, this makes the investigation more difficult, as the Finnish Security Police and Israel’s Mossad enter the picture. Complicating Ari’s efforts is pressure put on him by the Rabbi, his brother, and the rest of the Jewish community. The novel is an extraordinary beginning to what is promised to be an ongoing series. The plot takes place during the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While Ari’s background plays a prominent role in the story, don’t look for a lot of accuracy about the religion or its practitioners, other than Ari’s noting that while he doesn’t keep Kosher, he also doesn’t eat pork. This is a fast-moving thriller, with a very remarkable protagonist. And be prepared for an even more unusual conclusion. Recommended.
Although the lead character, detective has a rather sarcastic sense of humor, this Noir thriller just didn't grab me. I'm not sure if it was all the dialogue, without much background, but even though it was quite twist with the reveal held until the end, this just ended up being just okay for me.
The bodies certainly pile up in Nights of Awe, Harri Nykänen's first foray into the series featuring Ariel Kafka of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit. Nykänen is no fledgling writer -- he has several books under his belt, including his Raid series, which was the basis for a TV show in Finland.Nights of Awe is a good series opener, a very serious police procedural where the solution doesn't unravel until the very end. It's a no-nonsense story, with a different approach to Scandinavian crime fiction that takes place during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur known as Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe. The main character is Ariel (Ari) Kafka, 40, unmarried, Jewish, first and foremost a policeman, then a Jew. As he notes, "If Rabbi Liebstein was right and the world was falling to pieces, an unpleasant role had been reserved for me. It was my job to gather up all of the gears that were flying off and repair the clock so it would work again."And considering that by the end of the novel there are eight people laying dead, all connected to one case, he's got his work cut out for him. The first two bodies are discovered at the railyard in Linnunlaulu, one having been shot and the other had fallen or had been pushed from a bridge onto the top of a passing train. All kinds of theories are put forward as to the nature of the killings, but Ari knows it's much to early to think on the theoretical side. There are few clues at the scene other than a cell phone needing a password to unlock it and a map from Hertz. As the detectives begin their investigation, more bodies turn up, and it isn't long until an inspector from the Security Police (SUPO) gets involved, much to Ari's dismay. The clues lead to an Iraqi refugee, his co-worker and his cousin, a known drug dealer, but the tabloids are linking the killings to terrorism either on the part of Israeli political extremists or Arab terrorists. In the meantime, Ari's brother and a spokesperson for the Helsinki Jewish congregation believe that the deaths are linked to a terrorist plot to blow up the synagogue during the High Holy Days, during which, coincidentally, the Israeli foreign minister is paying a visit, a theory bolstered by the involvement of the head of security of the Israeli embassy. Sorting out these theories and getting to the truth in the face of pressure being heaped on Ari from several directions is going to be difficult at best. Nights of Awe is ambitious, to say the least, but it's a good start to what will probably be a good series to follow. The writing is straightforward with little to get in the way of the plot -- no long sessions of interior monologue expressing the main character's angst, for example, but at times it can get a little confusing as body after body piles up and new plot developments are revealed little by little. Ari's character is portrayed realistically, but some of the supporting characters are kind of just there in the background. This isn't necessarily a drawback, but rather a reflection of a first novel in a series where the lead character is the focus. And while there is a lot of action, it's sort of secondary, where the crime has already happened rather than say, a car blowing up in front of the cops' noses. I have to admire how the author handles two major issues: first, in the treatment of Jewish attitudes toward Israeli politics, he notes that there are some who have misgivings about Israel's policies toward its Arab neighbors, but he also takes at look at things from Israel's point of view. Second, the author gives a fair treatment of the Muslims in this novel, especially when the police turn to the Imam of the local Islamic center for assistance, rather than accusation. I do have a couple of niggles: first, there is very little in the way of sense of place here. Maybe it's just me, but after all of the Scandinavian crime fiction I've read, very little of it takes place in Finland, so it would be nice if the re