Translated by David Hackston
Not having read this author's PRIEST OF EVIL (first published in 2003) as the subject matter does not appeal, I was pleased to discover that one of his earlier books, TO STEAL HER LOVE (first published in 1993), has just been translated into English, thanks to the Arts Council of England and English PEN, as well as the publisher, Arcadia, who is putting the book out in its Eurocrime imprint. Was DS Timo Harjunpaa worth the wait? On balance, yes.
On the plus side, it is great for me to read, finally, a police procedural set in Finland, as part of my criminal travels across mainland Europe. The haunting ICE MOON by Jan Costin Wagner, a German author who set his novel in Finland, is the closest I have yet come to it, but Wagner's book is more focused on the personal journey of the main character and is set in the countryside. TO STEAL HER LOVE is city-bound, complete with all the atmosphere and irritations of life that the detectives have to contend with in order to do their jobs – mainly at the level of having enough staff to reach an emergency on time without having to wait in a queue of reported fires, thefts and attacks. Another plus is the character and setting. Harjunpaa is a slightly remote man, but his domestic life is bought into focus by his attachment to his children's pets and a moving subplot about his senile father, from whom he's been estranged since boyhood but who is now dumped on him by the social services department. Initially the visit is just temporary, but Harjunpaa is soon frustrated by his attempts to contact social services to deal with the old man, being cycled round an eternal loop by answer machines, an experience with which we are all familiar but, as the irritated detective asks himself, how do the old people themselves cope with this Kafkaesque bureaucracy?
Other aspects of his family life are tantalisingly remote, however. I imagine that this is because the author's English-language readers have not been well-served by the lack of translated versions (as well as the almost inevitable wrong chronological order of those that are translated). I would guess that the earlier books provide more domestic context, particularly concerning Harjunpaa's wife, who barely features here but who is clearly a significant influence on her husband. The translation itself, by David Hackston, is excellent – a wonderful use of language that helps to bring this complex and subtle book to life, as well as adding many touches of humour throughout.
The main plot of TO STEAL HER LOVE concerns the creepy Tweety, a young man from a large family of criminals who is an expert lock-picker and synaestheisic – he experiences sensations as colours and images. Tweety, however, has a chilling hobby – he follows women to their homes and breaks into their houses while they are asleep, watching them and sometimes even getting into bed with them, albeit on the other side to their partners. He has a network of such boltholes across the city, which he visits at night and which are useful when he's on the run. Tweety gives everyone and every thing a name, whether it is a person ("Wheatlocks" is his favourite woman), his feet, or his lock-picks. He lives in a perpetual fantasy-schizoid state. Gradually we realise that his mother, whom he calls Mother Gold and idolises, is in fact a horribly manipulative old crone who has driven Tweety's father to death and constantly harangues her many (now adult) children, most of whom are devious, cunning criminals, all living together in a Dickensian rabbit-warren of shacks and decrepit buildings with secrets in the cellars.
The police have long known that somebody is stalking women and breaking in to their homes, but they can't catch the perpetrator. At the same time, they are bogged down by inter-departmental rivalries, budget cuts and corruption. Harjunpaa does his best to carry out his pure, self-imposed, mission as a detective but is constantly undermined by internal and external politics of one kind or another – even when he transcends that despite his chronic workload, there are never enough resources so he can't successfully follow through his cases, which regularly fail and so continue the cycle of his lack of good standing with his unsympathetic superiors.
Ultimately, although I'm glad I read this book, it fails to satisfy. The plotlines involving the repellent Tweety and his ghastly brothers are left hanging, and indeed it is one of the women he stalks rather than the police who is instrumental in the former's undoing. Harjunpaa lets Tweety slip through his fingers on several occasions, usually but not always by no fault of his own, and the other main plotline (a bank robbery) peters out after what seems to be an overlong build-up. My favourite parts of the story involved the police and how the lower ranks try to get the job done despite all the politics and rivalries from above and from other departments, and the broader observations of an overstretched societal system teetering on the brink and full of cynical opportunists, in the manner so ably conveyed by Sjowall and Wahloo in their Martin Beck series. I could have done with more of those aspects involving Harjunpaa and his colleagues on his team, particularly Onerva, and less of what it was like to see the world from Tweety's deranged perspective.