Nights of Awe – Harri Nykänen

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I haven’t read a lot of crime fiction that’s translated to English, with the exception being Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Naturally I was really interested to read the Finnish Nights of Awe for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.  I was not disappointed.

Nykänen’s protagonist, Ariel Kafka, is complexly drawn.   A rare Jewish cop, he is nothing like the noir counterparts that we tend to find in American and Scottish crime fiction.  When he is assigned to a case where two bodies are found near a busy train station – one of them actually hit by a train, the other stabbed and shot multiple times – he feels that the case should end up being fairly clear cut.  That isn’t the case, however, when Ari’s family and his local synagogue start becoming very interested in the murders.  Pieces from his life, past and present, are drawn together in a complex web that presents him with one of the most morally challenging cases of his career as bodies begin to pile.

One thing that I really loved about Kafka (Nykänen does make a few remarks towards the famous author), was that he was so very different.  He never overstepped his bounds as a cop, always operating within his guidelines and the functions that he had.  Perhaps most impressive was his ability to listen to his subordinates, and dole out praise when it was warranted.  For those that have read this blog, you know the slight obsession (ok, perhaps more than slight) I have with one DI Rebus.  I could not help but compare the two detectives and marvel at just how different, and sort of refreshing, Ari’s optimism really was.  Sure, he begins the book examining a body in a newspaper bin and contemplating the utter meaningless existence the corpse had led in life.  And yet, throughout this major case, he is always hopeful that the killers will be the caught, the crime solved, and those responsible brought to justice.

When I started the book, I felt like the style of the actual writing and I might not get along.  Nykänen employs short sentences, succinct statements, and a very matter-of-fact tone.  You can see that I enjoy a superfluous word or two, and I appreciate them in reading as well.  Nykänen’s style grew on me, however, and I came to really enjoy it fairly quickly.  For a crime novel it works.  I did not always feel I was reading a story, but more that I was witnessing the events unfold.  It is an interesting approach and helped by the fact that it was executed well.  Of course, a lot of pressure falls onto the translator who must maintain that same spirit that exists in the Finnish original.  While I cannot speak for the beginning of the process, the end result was well done.

To be succinct, as Nykänen would prefer, I enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed the dilemmas presented to Kafka, and his ability to  navigate around the complications his family and beliefs put him in.  I also enjoyed reading a Jewish protagonist.  I feel that characters of faith – whichever it may be – are too little presented in fiction.  Nykänen did a great job of making Kafka relateable to those who don’t share his beliefs.

Be warned: While available in the UK and Europe, Nights of Awe isn’t available in the US until March 20, 2012.

Rating: 8/10
Reviewed on behalf of Bitter Lemon Press

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