On one of those heady summer days when the thermometer climbs into the low teens, there’s been a killing at “Palm Beach, Finland.” It wasn’t always Palm Beach, of course. But local entrepreneur Jorma Leivo thinks he can turn it into a Mediterranean-style resort, as long as he keeps the lifeguards in skimpy shorts, builds a giant pink flamingo and somehow acquires the Koski family home, which inconveniently sits on the land he needs for the deep-water marina.
Antti Tuomainen’s novel dispels much of its mystery in the opening chapter. We know exactly who has killed a thief in the kitchen of the Koski residence – two thugs sent by Jorma to scare Olivia Koski out of the house she has just inherited. And we also know that Jan, the holidaying maths teacher, new in town, is an undercover police officer investigating the crime. So there are no sudden revelations here – the reader is there to watch as the cast fumble and stumble their way towards a resolution, each of them chasing a nebulous dream that could conceivably be realised with just one smallish cash injection.
Everybody is living on the edge, tantalisingly within reach of a big break. Jorma’s visions of a Mediterranean resort on a Finnish beach merely require the acquisition of one final parcel of land. Chico, the local loser, just needs to do one dirty job in order to get the money for the guitar that will make him a rock star. In the most Finnish of dreams, Olivia has pipes that need re-doing, and builders’ expenses that keep escalating. And now the sinister gangster Holma has rolled into town, offering a five-figure sum for anyone who can help him find out who killed his hapless brother.
Considering that Jorma’s resort has 1980s-themed colours, and chalets named after the cast of a well-known Florida cop show, I am surprised that nobody thought to call this book Niemi Vice. It is, after all, the little cottage on the cape (niemi) that is the epicentre of all the violence, which includes an exploding shed and that most Finnish of torments, an attack on someone’s sauna. In any self-respecting Scandi-Noir, Jan Nyman the investigator would be the hero, but Tuomainen’s novel is an ensemble piece, with none of the characters quite perceiving where they are in a chain of obligations and vendettas, each of them making promises they can’t keep, about money they hope to get, for a service they hope to render.
Much like the work of Reijo Mäki, Tuomainen’s fiction revels in the disconnection between the melodrama of a hard-boiled, American thriller and the jejune realities of Finnish small-town life. These echo the ironies to be found in his The Man Who Died, which revolves around skulduggery in the rare-mushroom world, and Little Siberia, in which ne’er-do-wells in a one-horse town race to acquire a precious meteorite – it has spent aeons traversing the universe, only to end up crashing through the roof of a drunken rally-driver’s Audi. Palm Beach Finland comes similarly loaded with a sense of the absurd, not least in the character of Chico, whose life-changing encounter with the spirit of Bruce Springsteen is brought about by inhaling the toxic fumes from a fire started with painted wooden slats.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.