The setting of Cruel is the Night, the first of the Finnish author and editor Karo Hämäläinen’s novels to be translated into English, is not for the faint-hearted. Four Finnish friends meet for dinner and drinks – particularly for drinks – in a luxury pad high up in the Shard, the tallest building in London. Only one of them, the prologue tells us, will survive the evening.
This very dark and often very funny novel acknowledges its debt both to Agatha Christie and to nineteenth-century “sensation fiction” by offering us first-person split narratives by the four central characters: Robert, a wealthy banker; Elise, his mentally unsteady trophy wife; the morally upright but infuriatingly petty journalist Mikko; and Mikko’s no-nonsense wife Veera. As events unfold, it becomes apparent that all four are hiding dark secrets from one another, including strong feelings of hatred and desire. The narrative technique, which allows the characters to speak for themselves, delays, but does not eventually prevent, the reader’s realisation that all four are in fact deeply unpleasant individuals. In a deft twist, Hämäläinen thus makes the reader complicit in the plot by having them want these people dead.
Hämäläinen also, however, teases the reader, by showing the sole survivor leaving the crime scene. Yet the novel is not really a whodunit, rather, as the ill-judged evening descends into alcohol-fuelled mayhem, it becomes an absurdist comedy. The pitch-black humour of the book is particularly Finnish: there is rye bread spiced with strychnine; a champagne sabre of the type owned by Marshall Mannerheim, used to cut open more than just bottles; and there are cocktails spiked with cyanide. A Finn, after all, could never turn down a free drink, but there is no such thing as a “free drink” in the moral universe of this novel.
In Finland Hämäläinen is known for his financial thrillers, and similar themes feature in this novel. Robert has made a fortune from unethical but legal LIBOR manipulations, an activity that Mikko cannot countenance. But this is also a book in which everything and everyone is for sale, and in which all human relationships are defined by the logic of the market. Each of the characters appraises the rising and falling stock of the others in this game of murder. The stock will ultimately only rise for one of the four protagonists – but for which one?
Reviewed by Minna Vuohelainen
CRUEL IS THE NIGHT
Written by Karo Hämäläinen
Translated by Owen Witesman
Published by Soho, 2017
Dr Minna Vuohelainen is Lecturer in English at City, University of London. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century popular culture, including Gothic and crime fiction.
Read Minna Vuohelainen’s #RivetingReview of LET THE RIGHT ON IN by John Ajvide Lindqvist