Timo Harjunpää is a dour, distracted detective who commutes into work on the train from the Helsinki suburbs. He has to deal with a series of quirky crimes, including a policeman’s son on a killing spree, a millionaire pushed over the edge by aggressively woke tormenters, and a male prostitute accused of murder. Meanwhile, Harjunpää’s wife hectors him about “never” spending time with his family, but does so while they’re at the beach, and continues complaining about it while they are sailing around in a yacht.
Sneaking without fanfare onto Netflix, the Finnish crime series Harjunpää is based on the novels by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu, retitled Helsinki Crimes for the international market, on the grounds that there is no point in having a hero whose name nobody can pronounce in the Home Counties. The character has appeared before in multiple adaptations, including a Swedish-language TV series in the 1980s and a Finnish series in the 1990s. Here, he is dusted off once more for the Scandi Noir generation, with adaptations of four of the Harjunpää novels, carefully dragged into the 21st century. Harjunpää and the Policeman’s Son, for example, was originally published in 1983, but here gains a subplot about online identity theft that would never have even occurred to the original author. Harjunpää and the Bullies, originally published in 1986, is here entirely transformed into a story of net stalking and catfishing.
The original novels were written between 1976 and 2010 by a serving police officer with a deep interest not only in the police procedural, but in the psychological grind of police work. Harjunpää himself was named in honour of a fellow cop, killed in the line of duty in 1968. Joensuu’s original novels focused on the damage done to Harjunpää by his encounters with crime and criminals. As noted in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, police officers tend to encounter people on “the worst days of their lives”, and the series zeroes in on Harjunpää’s troubles reconciling his day-job horrors with his distant family life.
Much of the appeal to Finnish viewers surely stems from the way that forty-year-old thrillers are updated for a new generation, but none of that will be visible to audiences overseas. Instead, they are liable to see an oddly well-off, reticent detective, blundering through a series of crime scenes, with a will-this-do? theme tune and a touchy-feely boss.
The subtitling team push their translation to the redline of acceptability, throwing in a bunch of policier slang (all “vics” and “K-9 units” and “broads” and even saying “911” when the emergency number in Finland is actually 112), which makes the script sound a lot cooler than it really is. The best scene in episode one, however, is completely wordless, as a father identifies his daughter’s body at the morgue, and the entire thing is played in Finnish silence.
Some truly interesting local nuances may slip past the casual foreign viewer, such as the calm and conciliatory behaviour of the police, who often seem to treat the criminals as if the crime they have just committed is something that has happened to them. Harjunpää has none of the “YOU’RE A LOOSE CANNON!” spats we might expect with his captain, who is, instead, a kind-hearted matron who asks him if he is fulfilled at the workplace. His conflict with his partner Onerva is not about the usual buddy-cop tensions, but about her unreconstructed opinion that criminals cannot possibly be reformed, and are only learning enough psychobabble to gain parole.
The filming schedule appears to have made the most of the short Finnish summer, although one sequence may play differently with foreign viewers. It looks at first as if someone is doing a terrible job of shooting day-for-night, but is in fact naturalistically filmed at midnight in July, which truly has an eerie teal pallor, like some otherworldly twilight.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.