“Lucifer’s Tears” is the second novel that James Thompson, an American who has lived in Finland for the past dozen years, has written about Helsinki homicide inspector Kari Vaara. It’s a fast-moving, readable slice of Nordic noir, although I wouldn’t argue with Vaara’s own description of his adventures as “morbid and bizarre,” given the extreme violence and explicit sex that punctuate the book. Perhaps the most striking fact about the novel is just how much plot Thompson squeezes into his tale. He may give us too much of a good thing.
We start with Vaara, a cop who often seems a veritable Job. He is haunted by memories of childhood beatings from his father and by guilt that he didn’t save his sister from drowning. We’re reminded that in the previous novel, “Snow Angels,” he inadvertently caused the death of a number of people, including his ex-wife and a fellow cop. He was himself shot in the face and left with an ugly scar that he refuses to have removed as a kind of punishment for his misdeeds. Worst of all, he thinks his obsession with the previous case caused his American-born wife to miscarry their twin daughters.
As this book begins, the wife, Kate, is again pregnant, only days away from delivery, and he’s terrified that the pressures of his new cases might cause another miscarriage. These fears may be why he is all but incapacitated by migraines. Nor does the fact that his wife’s brother and sister have come from the States for a visit — he’s a druggie, she’s a religious fanatic — help Vaara’s state of mind.
The novel’s central crime involves the torture and murder of an attractive, young, married woman. The question becomes whether she was killed by her lover or her jealous husband. In time, a senior police official tells Vaara which man to charge with the murder, and it becomes apparent that this official was also enjoying the favors of the wayward wife. Vaara is too honest to go along with a coverup, but he may wreck his career if he refuses.
In a second plot thread, Vaara is ordered to investigate a 90-year-old Finnish hero of World War II who is belatedly suspected of having worked with the Nazis to kill Russian prisoners of war. The crusty old soldier readily admits having killed hundreds of “Communists” (as he considered all Russians) and warns that if he’s prosecuted, he will reveal that many other Finnish war heroes and political leaders committed war crimes, too. As this unfolds, we learn a lot about Finland’s complex wartime dealings with Germany and Russia, even as the enduring legacy of Nazism recalls Stieg Larsson’s trilogy.
Yet another case concerns two bar-hopping brothers who get into a scuffle with two bouncers, causing one brother’s death. When the law refuses to punish the bouncers, the dead man’s family imposes its own brand of justice.
All this takes place in winter, amid temperatures well below zero. In one nice passage, Vaara explains the novel’s title and perhaps more as well: “My home, Finland. The ninth and innermost circle of hell. A frozen lake of blood and guilt formed from Lucifer’s tears, turned to ice by the flapping of his leathery wings.” Ah yes, home, sweet home.
Despite his multiplicity of plotlines, Thompson’s narrative skill keeps things moving at a lively pace. We enjoy the comic relief when Vaara’s worthless brother-in-law is left barefoot in the snow after a crack dealer steals his boots, and we worry about whether the detective’s long-suffering wife can give birth amid all this chaos. Still, I think Thompson could have done without the twins who were caught in the bar fight, and without the new tribulation that he inflicts on his hero in the book’s closing moments, one that can’t possibly be resolved until the next book in the series. Thompson is trying too hard.
Nonetheless, the haunted, trouble-prone Vaara is an intriguing character, one who recalls Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. We sympathize when he says: “Even after all my years as a cop, the darkness inherent in human nature still shocks me. Sometimes I feel I’d like to take Kate and our child to live deep in the forest, away from the beasts we call humans. Somewhere peaceful and safe.” We’ll be hearing more from Inspector Vaara, and we already know that his life is not destined to be peaceful or safe.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.
By James Thompson
Putnam. 323 pp. $24.95