Hard-up Finnish journalist Ruuhio (Mikko Lempilampi) leans on his drinking buddy, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) to poke around a cold case that has long been forgotten. Fifteen years earlier, three girls from Turku disappeared in swift succession – maybe they left the country, maybe they were murdered – but the town has already forgotten the scandal.
This is probably because the town is munted. Antti Reini’s second outing as Vares rarely strays far from the pub, which seems to be the location for much of Turku’s thinking, drinking and big pimping. He’s been so smashed for the last decade that he hasn’t even noticed that his drinking buddy Luusalmi (everybody is a drinking buddy) not only dated one of the missing girls, but wrote a book in which he outlined his personal theory about their disappearance. Luusalmi, however, is not renowned for his problem-solving skills – he thinks they were in a sapphic love triangle, and that one bludgeoned the other two to death with a dildo before running off to Lesbos to become a tour guide.
Ruuhio’s challenge to Vares to bring him some reheated column inches is only the first of a remarkable series of unlikely coincidences, which put most of the suspects, victims and investigators not only in the same city, but often in the same building, and sometimes the same pub. One of the girls, it transpires, didn’t even leave town, but put on a wig and switched careers to become a fortune-teller. We see her in the opening sequence, telling Vares’ hot mess of an ex-girlfriend that she knows just the guys to put the scare on our hero, a pair of off-the-peg thugs, one of whom also used to date one of the murder victims. Meanwhile, menacing bad-guy “Tristan da Cunha” (Taisto Oksanen) gets off the ferry from Sweden (it’s always the ferry from Sweden, which is like Mordor if you’re Finnish) and soon establishes his bad-guy credentials by picking up a man in a gay club, force-feeding him a cock-shaped birthday cake, and then savagely murdering him so he can squat in his apartment.
Based on Huhtikuun tytöt, the 15th book in Reijo Mäki’s Vares series, Girls of April (2011) is an odd choice for adaptation, coming right behind a similar cold-case in the previous instalment, Kiss of Evil. One wonders how problematic a dozen other novels had to have been for this one to get the greenlight. Our hero is so drunk, in fact, that he doesn’t dare get behind the wheel of a car, and travels everywhere either on public transport or in a taxi driven by a part-time stripper. A vital clue is provided for him when his cat goes missing, prompting him to shamble, sozzled, into his next-door neighbour’s storage unit and kick over a box full of 15-year-old photographs. If anyone is more incompetent than Vares, it’s the police, who need him to tip them off that there’s been a murder, and who do not seem to have drawn any of the dots together on the case for the last decade and a half. Vares has stumbled into a complex web of blackmail and double-crossing over high-end prostitutes, and half-heartedly fends off the blunt and clinical advances of one victim’s sister, who has been told by a fortune-teller that he’s going to be the best shag she has that year. Admit it, we’ve all been there.
Screenwriter Katariina Souri (who, as Kata Karkkainen, was also the December 1988 Playboy Playmate of the Month, because this isn’t surreal enough already) takes her hands off the wheel and lets Mäki’s original story carom through its plot. She appears to have been hobbled not only by the original story, but by what is now clearly the restrictions of network television, with several gruesome murders happening off-camera, leaving characters to coyly tiptoe around even their descriptions of what has happened. In one crucial moment, a death is merely hinted at by the sight of a pile of fresh earth, and the viewer has to embark on a detective mission of their own to work out who’s been killed. Meanwhile, elements of what I blush to call magic-realism creep in, with visions in a crystal ball that appear to accurately reflect events going on elsewhere, and Vares himself haunted by sado-masochistic dreams in which the murder victims seemingly try to offer him clues.
Souri, like Mäki himself and every other author working today, must also grapple with the narrative problems introduced by the singularity of social media. Vares is investigating a case from 1995 (1983 in the original novel), at least in part because 21st century metadata would have made it so much easier to crack. My bank statements today will tell you how much I spent on booze last month, where I bought my groceries, and even which cab I took home on Monday. Such an information overload has confronted the world of the crime novelist with a huge crisis; it has ruined half of the plots that used to work, solved a bunch of cases within moments, and forced criminals, police and, indeed, authors to come up with a whole new bunch of ruses, hacks and tricks to carry on their trade. Dating from 2004, the original novel is ironically more recent than the three sources that were adapted into movies before it (1999, 1990 and 1998 respectively), but looks back to the 20th century for its crime and its evidence.
Souri does add one moment of subtle drama, drawing fittingly on the nature of alcoholism, or rather, its absence. A kindly supporting character is revealed to have been a complete bastard 15 years ago – entirely reformed through giving up the bottle, he is something of an object lesson to the other cast members, although the change in him is so complete as to call into question whether he could even be considered to be the same person. One would hope that a female scenarist would find some fun to be had with the outrageously toxic masculinity of the Vares cast, but instead she leaves them to it, perhaps on the understanding that anyone who doesn’t already see these characters as ludicrous failures is probably a lost cause.
In the lead role, Antti Reini remains counter-intuitively charming – there is no evidence in the script that he is anything more than a piss-artist, but he exudes heroic charisma, even when unsteadily toasting his chums in the eighth or ninth bar-room scene of the film, or shooting the shit in his mate’s bookshop. The women in this film, meanwhile, are all crazy bitches, fit to be banged or murdered, or banged then murdered. Much like the growing pile of corpses that turn Inspector Morse‘s Oxford into a comedically unsafe place to live, Vares’ Turku is a veritable minefield if you are a girl in a miniskirt. Even the danger is chauvinist – girls and gays are expendable, but the straight men in Vares’ world live oddly charmed lives. If you’re a good guy, even the criminals sent to beat you up will give you a free pass, and even the murderer you’re chasing will cut you loose if he sees another criminal planning to kill you. Violence is occasionally dealt out to men, but usually by criminals dispensing rough justice to other criminals. Vares’ Turku has to be the cushiest police assignment anywhere; you just sit in the pub all day and wait for one bunch of thugs to murder another. Meanwhile, the blonde at the bar is giving you the eye, and is probably up for it.
The Vares series seems to dwell in a time warp where the latter part of the twentieth century never happened, when men were men and women were grateful. It often seems uncaring or ignorant of the social contract that is to be found even within old-school sexism – call it chauvinism or chivalry, the code implies that the womenfolk within it are protected, but the men of Vares’ world inevitably arrive years too late to save a damsel in distress, although they are available to shag her sister, and/or write a book in which they call her a dyke.
If you asked me to pitch a more “Finnish” crime series, it would be about a tough, female detective in a country run by women for women, more Jane Tennison in a socialist utopia than these losers. Maybe such an idea was itself a structuring influence: the Vares films went into production shortly after the broadcast of Rikospoliisi Maria Kallio, based on Leena Lehtolainen’s novels about just such a heroine. I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of Vares’ appeal for its readers and viewers. Somewhere in Finland there are unreconstructed men who miss the good old days of fags, booze and knee-tremblers behind the kebab shop. And they yearn for simpler times, when women knew their place, which was apparently either bed or a shallow grave.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.