The Winter of the Lions comes into the unusual category of a Scandinavian crime novel written by a German. The writer, Jan Costin Wagner has the unusual distinction of being selected by the Goethe Institute as one of their “hand-picked Germans“, presumably because his books have been translated into quite a number of languages and he has won prizes for his fiction around the world.
In an interview, Wagner said, “In my novels I aim to encapsulate a moment of comprehension – through leaving things out. I believe that writing fiction can get so close to reality and reveal the feelings that are common to all”. He has been closely linked to Finland for many years (his wife is Finnish) and although his books have all the characteristics of “Scandi-crime”, there is something looser and less precisely defined about them than most novels in the genre, leaving questions unanswered and loose ends untied.
The Winter of the Lions was translated by the highly-regarded Anthea Bell which suggests that the publishers think it is a cut-above the run-of-the-mill crime novels.
Like most crime novels, the book has a police detective as the main character, this time a Kimmo Joentaa, who following the death of his wife returns each night to a snow-bound, lonely house to sit in silence reflecting on the past. An unexpected visitor arrives on his doorstep on Christmas Eve, a young, enigmatic woman who, earlier in the day at the police-station, has claimed to be a victim of rape. The lonely Joentaa allows her into his house and after a short conversation, “a great cry enters” Joentaa’s brain as she takes him in her arms.
Joentaa is not the only damaged individual in the police team. His sidekick Tuomas Heinonen has a major gambling addiction and throughout the book we read of Joentaa’s efforts to divert him from bringing disaster on himself and his family as he places high-stakes bets on English football teams.
Before long the set-piece murder occurs, a highly complex affair, involving a forensic scientist and a manufacturer of fake corpses for the film industry. The rest of the book concerns Joentaa’s investigation of this and further crimes, but this is no “police procedural” in the usual sense, for Joentaa works by intuitive compulsions rather than painstaking analysis of the evidence. There is much tragedy along the way and some highly damaged people to deal with and I admire the author’s ability to create believable, multi-dimensional characters who do not act in the obvious way but show all the irrational and contradictory behaviours common to human-kind.
There are quite a large number of characters in the book and I struggled with the Finnish names. The cast list includes Kimmo Joentaa, Paavo Sundstrom, Tuomas Heinonen, Kai-petteri Hamalainen, Petri Gronholm as the main characters but they are joined by many others identified only by their surnames such as Aapeli, Salonen, Niskanen, Lauldcanen, Harnalainen, Tuulildd, Veikko, Halonen, Tuulikki.
I think the author may have made a joke about this when he wrote this paragraph;
Kai-Petteri Hämäläinen looked at Irene and his daughters, thinking of Niskanen. He couldn’t get the man out of his head. Irene watched the doctor as he closed the door behind him. ‘You wouldn’t think it to look at that young man, but he’s the medical director in charge of this outfit,’ said Hämäläinen, and Irene nodded. ‘Valtteri Muksanen. Funny sort of name”.
It wasn’t a major obstacle, but I confess that even as I reached the end of the book I was struggling to remember who even the main characters were. I don’t know what the solution would be for a book set in Finland so it’s something I will just have to live with if I read more books by Jan Costin Wagner (which I probably will). Although I have read books by Finnish writers Tove Jannson and Arto Paasilinna they had far fewer characters in them so getting used to their names wasn’t so much of a problem.
By the way, there’s a huge amount of snow in this book. There are snowy forests, tree’s laden with the stuff, it drives through the air, swirls around and sometimes looks fluffy, sometimes like candy-floss; people glide over it, stomp on it, merge into it, their feet crunch on it, they lie lifeless in it and end up looking like snowmen. The snow theme was topical in a week when I’ve looked up from reading to see plenty of snow for myself, but I’m not sure this would be the book to read on a warm summer’s day!
Don’t let these minor quibbles put you off the book. It’s as good a crime novel as any and has some features which make it stand out. I’d give it 4.5 stars out of 5.