Created by Jorma Napola
Private eye novels have never been big in Finland. I don’t really know why, but I have my suspicions: the private eye is a product of a culture that believes heavily in individualism and the right to take the law into one’s hands if necessary. But Finland is pretty much a culture that relies on authority, and on letting someone else take care of things.
Perhaps because of this, private eyes in Finnish literature can be counted with one man’s fingers. Reijo Mäki has Jussi Vares, Markku Ropponen has Otto Kuhala, Ari Paulow has Jesse Hackman… and that’s about it. Tapani Bagge’s Onni Syrjänen is not really a private eye (although by the rules of this site, he qualifiers–editor). In the seventies there were a few writers who dabbled in the genre, like Matti Kokkonen and Totti Karpela, but their legacy has not endured. (One distinctive point in Finnish P.I. novels is that they work pretty well–if unintentionally–as parody.)
One notable exception–and a shining example of a good Finnish private eye novel is Ruuvikierre (1962) by Jorma Napola. The Finnish title might translate as “The Big Screw.” I read the novel for the first time just recently, when I was suffering a bad case of stomach complaint.
The private eye hero in the novel is JAAKKO PIIRA, who seems to be closely modeled on Philip Marlowe. He mentions a few times having been in the war and having fought first against the Soviets, then against the Germans. Piira is your typical private eye, tired, lonely, suffering from melancholy, and flirting with alcoholism.
The book starts with Piira complaining that he’s got no job. The only company he has (shades of Marlowe) is a spider weaving its web in a corner of his office. He finally gets a client, though–a coy young lady who hires him to check out a tenant in her aunt’s house who has now disappeared. Piira promises to look into the matter and finds himself tangled up in a web of deceit and blackmail. At one point he even infiltrates a rehab center for lunatic alcoholics to gather evidence. There are couple of murders and some cops who don’t really like Piira.
The book was first published in 1962 and won the first prize in the prestigious Big Detective Novel Competition held by WSOY, a large Finnish publisher, in 1962. In fact, Napola also won the second prize, but that’s another story… (see below).
Ruuvikierre has its share of clichés, but if you happen to enjoy those particular clichés, you probably won’t mind. There’s a strong noirish tone and the style is fittingly hard-boiled. Napola also did a nice job of working all those born in the U.S.A. P.I. tropes into Finnish settings, even if at times I found Piira’s wisecracking a bit too un-Finnish. You know, we’re not really accustomed to people yapping all the time.
There are some implausibilities in the plot: I didn’t really buy the rehab center scene, but all in all I really liked the book. Suffice it to say that had this book been published in English, I doubt if many foreign readers would’ve noticed any difference.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timo Kukkola, who’s written extensively about the history of Finnish crime literature, seems to have derived some real pleasure in announcing that Napola never wrote another novel, but he didn’t know it all. In 1981, Viihdeviikarit, a small paperback publisher, published a novel by Napola called Ministeri on murhattu (which translates as “A Minister Has Been Murdered”), originally written in 1962. The back cover revealed that novel had won the second prize in the contest mentioned above, but WSOY didn’t want to publish two novels by the same writer in the same year. I don’t know why they didn’t use a pseudonym, but the result was that it went unpublished for almost 20 years.
But I remember reading the cheap paperback at least twice in my teens. The two books don’t really resemble each other, except that both have men of principle in the lead. Neither will back down. The murder in the latter book seems impossible at first, but Napola doesn’t give much thought to that and focuses more on bitter human intercourse. The book ends in noirish tones of despair and bitterness, even though it’s really nowhere as bleak as Ruuvikierre. It’s not as humorous either and the plot is not as intriguing. Ministeri on murhattu seems also to have some tones of the Maigret novels by Simenon.
If you ask me, Napola’s second novel, Ministeri on murhattu was a good solid thriller. Both books deserve to be rediscovered, and Ruuvikierre in particular.
- Ruuvikierre (1962; translation: “The Big Screw”)
- Nordic Eyes
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Respectfully submitted by Juri Nummelin.