This is Katja Ivar’s first book – and the first in a projected series featurinh police sergeant Hella Mauzer. So far, so ordinary: but Evil Things is set in Finnish Lapland in 1952, a place and time when women police officers were as rare as hen’s teeth. Mauzer is in effect the female equivalent of the 1950s ‘angry young man’ – a feminist before that term was current. She has to battle not only crime but also prejudice and outright hostility from her colleagues, all while carrying the burdens of losing her entire family in her teens and a failed love affair with a radio DJ. So, after a serious incident while serving on the Helsinki homicide squad, after which she is told she is ‘too emotional’, she’s despatched to Ivalo in southern Lapland, where the worst case she has to face is a local beggar who persistently pees on the local doctor’s front steps. Until, that is, a man is reported missing in a tiny village hard against the Soviet border. In a country where the Cold War is a daily reality, Mauzer’s boss – Chief Inspector Lennart Eklund, a man obsessed with rules and regulations – is loth to let her investigate what he is convinced is just another drunkard who’s wandered off and died of hypothermia. Their relationship is difficult, to say the least:
‘Whoever had the deranged idea that a highly strung girl eager to sort out all of the world’s injustices, and a pale, limp, malevolent bureaucrat, whose only passions in life were his exotic wife and the proper use of the filing system, could work together as a team had, unsurprisingly, been proved wrong.’
But he reluctantly gives in. When a body is indeed discovered by the local Orthodox priest just as Hella Mauzer arrives in the village, she believes herself vindicated. But even though the corpse – which has been ravaged by wolves (or bears) – is hardly recognisable, it’s obvious it’s not the missing man, Erno Jokinen. And it soon becomes clear that Käärmela is hiding something much more serious than a simple homicide – or two.
Mauzer is both perceptive and pig-headed by turns, at first assuming that espionage must lie behind what she has uncovered, though she can’t figure out why:
‘… she just couldn’t imagine what Erno Jokinen’s contribution to the spying business could be: betraying such sensitive information as the reindeer population or the cranberry harvest?’
She can also be both sweetly persuasive and downright rude. And this is where I began to have problems, as these changes are sometimes too abrupt; and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated at the way her curmudgeonly behaviour obstructs the investigation. This is one of the weaknesses in the book, almost as if the author is not quite sure how she will develop her character – although Mauzer does begin to see the light:
‘… she would have to abstain from mentioning her gut feeling … to her boss: hunches based on nothing more than instinct were good for men only. In women they were just whims or emotions … dirty words in Eklund’s mouth.’
It will be interesting to see how she emerges in volume two, so I won’t give up on her yet!
This story is both thrilling and unusual, though at times it doesn’t quite hang together: there are a few too many unexplained fortuitous jumps. More importantly, perhaps, some background needs to be woven into the story – some clear explanation of Finland’s and Lapland’s unusual history immediately preceding the events in the book. For even the details of ‘the Continuation War’ (which I had to look up) are too basic, and will, I think, leave a non-Finnish reader wondering. But the dénouement is finely tuned and quite unexpected and we are left keen to discover where Hella Mauzer will find herself next. So, a good start and, hopefully, more consolidation next time.
Reviewed by Max Easterman
Written by Katja Ivar
Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2019)
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
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