Two excellent novels by Jan Costin Wagner — “Ice Moon” and “Silence,” both set in Finland — have been translated into English, and they highlight the distinction between mysteries and crime novels. The German-born Wagner, who married a Finn and divides his time between Germany and Finland, has created a recurring detective, Kimmo Joentaa, and given him murder cases to solve. But the author seems less interested in springing whodunit surprises than on showing how a murder can affect those left behind: the victim’s family, the police, even the killers.
“Silence” begins in the summer of 1974, 33 years before the story’s main action. An older man befriends a younger one as a possible kindred spirit. Their common interest, unfortunately, is watching child pornography. That is reprehensible enough, but one day when they are out driving in the countryside, their behavior becomes heinous. The older man stops the car, strong-arms a girl off her bicycle and rapes and kills her while the younger man does nothing to stop him. This makes the younger one an accomplice, but at least he ends the friendship immediately. “I’m leaving now,” he announces. “We won’t be seeing each other again.”
Once the narrative has jumped forward three decades, the reader learns that, although the girl’s body was found in a nearby lake, her killer has never been caught. In the meantime, the younger man, Timo Korvensuo, has matured, married, fathered two children, become a respectable citizen — and kept his vow to have nothing to do with the killer. When a teenage girl’s bicycle is found abandoned next to a cross marking the site of the first crime, the police suspect a link with that cold case; the investigation is assigned to Joentaa.
The policeman has troubles of his own — or, rather, one big trouble: the death of his wife, Sanna, from cancer, which he may never get over. In one early scene, he mulls over some old photos, including one of Sanna just weeks before her illness was diagnosed. “Her face showed pride and satisfaction,” Wagner writes. “And the certainty that everything would go on just as well in the future.”
Korvensuo is confident of the future, too, until one night, in the midst of a cookout for family and friends, the first bulletin on the dual cases appears on the TV news. “You wonder what kind of bastard would do a thing like that again,” a guest comments. “Enough to stop anyone wanting to have children.”
The rest of the novel proceeds on parallel tracks. With the help of a retired colleague who got nowhere with the original case, Joentaa conducts his investigation while Korvensuo wonders how much, if anything, will survive of the life he has so carefully planted and tended all these years.
Wagner gives every character, no matter how minor, his or her due — especially the parents of the lost girls. The father of victim No. 1, for example, is so angry when the police show up, asking him to rake through the past in order to help them, that he practically throws them out of his house. The most complex portrait is that of Korvensuo, a man who seems to have made great strides toward self-redemption but who, even with so many years to prepare for possible exposure of his old complicity, doesn’t know what to do now.
This may not be the sort of novel you want to whip through on an airplane, and it holds no great surprises for readers who like to be fooled — or, for that matter, to outguess the smarty-pants author. Instead, “Silence” is a brilliant demonstration of how the lineaments of crime fiction — murder, detectives, step-by-step investigation — can be put to the service of tragedy.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
By Jan Costin Wagner
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
245 pp. $25