Review: The Winter of the Lions- Jan Costin Wagner

winter of lionsThe 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.

Turku police station where Kimmo Joentaa's works

Turku police station where Kimmo Joentaa’s works

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.

17 comments to Review: The Winter of the Lions- Jan Costin Wagner

  • That’s certainly interesting, a German author writing a Scandinavian crime novel but then we alos have American writing British crime.
    Must be some sort of homage to his wife. I’ve seen the name before but had no idea he was a crime writer. I’ll have a look if I find his books when I’m at a book shop the next time.
    Defeinitely a winter read.

  • Personally, I think I might be more inclined to read this when I’m not surrounded by snow but that might be due to the onset of cabin fever in these parts. It is, as you say, interesting that Anthea Bell has been assigned this novel. The recognition that the German children’s author, Cornelia Funke,had something interesting to say was marked by her publishers with a move from her original translator to Ms Bell, whose work was infinitely superior. I had promised myself no new crime writers this year, but I think that’s one resolution that’s about to be broken.

  • I find that these crime stories are so enhanced by the inclusion of troubled sleuths. Though the concept of a recently widowed and grieving man meeting a troubled young woman is a bit of a cliche, I think that in the right hands it can still work well.

    I am not sure why but I really like it when stories are set in snowy environments.

  • I think it must be compulsory to be damaged if your into sleuthing probably Conan Doyle’s fault. I’ve just finished 9 by Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, you’d love the names of people & places in it.

  • sounds rather good and seeing Bells name as translator means it is probably better than the normal crime novel from germany ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Stu!

  • Tom

    Hi Parish – the Andrzej Stasiuk book sounds interesting. Finns and Poles are reputed to have the most difficult European languages for English speakers.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Brian. I am reading too many crime novels sat the moment! It can become a bit addictive

  • Tom

    Alex – thanks for visiting. I’ve not seen your blog before and I like the minimalist design. I’ve never heard ot Cornelia Funke – having looked her up on Amazon I’d certainly get hold of a couple of her books – if I had any young teens around

  • Tom

    Caroline – there’s an American writer of Scandi-crime too whose name i’ve forgotten. No doubt many would like to jump on the band-wagon but at least Jan Costin Wagner has a Finnish wife and has been visiting the country for the last twenty years

  • I have had an interest in Finland ever since my three years (as a child) in the outback mining town of Mt Isa which seemed to be the destination of many Finnish migrants. The names are one of the things that have stuck with me. They were probably the first non-Anglo names I had more than a passing familiarity with. I might as a result have a more than passing chance of remembering them while reading – familiarity is a huge issue re remembering names isn’t it? But, with that number of names you’ve given, I’m pretty sure I’d get lost too!

    BTW have you noticed that when you comment on our blogs (these days – I’ve noticed it on mine and Guy’s for example), your name is not linked to your blog? That happens to me when I try to comment on blogs via my iPad but not when I use the laptop. I assume you’d prefer your comments to be linked to your blog?

  • Tom

    Hi Sue – Thanks for visting. The list of Finnish names is actually much longer than the one I quoted – the full list can be found on Shelfari. My complaint is slightly tongue in cheek as I managed to cope – just about!

    WordPress.com seemed to change their commenting system sometime last summer and since then I’ve never been able to link my comments to my blog. This is all very frustrating and I’ve tried every possible option. If you know of a way I can link my comments to my blog please let me know! I am now finding wordpress.com as difficult to comment as blogger which is a shame.

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  • I read Jan Costin Wagner’s first novel, Ice Moon, back in 2007 and thought it very good. I’ve not yet read anything else by him, but have taken note of your review and made a mental note to follow up my interest in this author. I tend to go through Nordic crime phases and haven’t read any for quite a while… Perhaps its time to dust a few off mount TBR?

  • HI Tom … I’ve heard that about WordPress but I haven’t noticed it on other WordPress blogs (at least the ones I can think of) … both the free sites and some hosted ones. My daughter’s blog is a self-hosted WordPress blog and I can comment on that and receive notification as usual. (It’s a bit funny when I use the iPad … it absolutely refuses to link my comment to my URL … but either way, via iPad or laptop it does advise me when my comment is replied to). In other words, I have no idea! It sounds like your implementation of WordPress is different to hers.

  • Tom

    Hi Sue. Thanks for that information. Did you get a notification of a new post this morning? I think I’ve got it working at last.

    As for the comment problem, I googled it and found other people complaining of a change last July. I’ve given up trying to sort it out now!

  • Tom

    Hi Kim – I’m having a binge on Scandi-crime at the moment and need to stop! They get a bit samey when you read three in one month. But they’re such easy reading after a series of more demanding books.

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