There were moments in Lauri Törhönen’s film Gambling Chip (2012) where I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on. Luckily, neither did our leading man, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini), much of whose relationship with this instalment’s guest star is glossed over in a massive alcoholic blackout. Down on his luck and running low on cash, Vares is rude to a pretty woman who takes too long at a cash machine. Feeling guilty, and quite possibly motivated by her sports car and evident wealth, he uses his private eye skills to track her down and… nope. Blackout. He wakes up the next morning on her sofa, all records of their conversation erased from his mind and from the film.
That’s okay, Sole (Maria Haapkylä) is a bit weird, and wants to bang him now, and before you can shake yourself awake, they’ve become a couple. Vares starts showing up to the pub in a clean shirt, and his drunken buddies scoff that he’s become little more than a gigolo. But this is a Vares film, so something is bound to go wrong. Sole disappears for three days and turns up dead in the forest, leaving Vares as one of the prime suspects in her murder, and honour-bound to find her killer.
Uhkapelimerkki (2007) was one of the more recent Vares novels, in which our hero is less of a bar-room bruiser, and more of a lothario with a laptop. But our hero remains dwarfed by the big picture, as he so often is, stumbling seemingly by accident on the big financial scandal that lurks behind the case he thinks he is chasing. As ever in Vares stories, the main death either goes unsolved or is closed with a huge fatberg of reasonable doubt; a bunch of secondary murders are sort-of explained, but only in passing, a much tougher deus ex machina super-criminal visits rough justice on the small fry, while the white-collar kingpin behind it all seems to get away scot-free. In this case it’s Natunen (Kaarina Hazard) a sinister woman with her own cat-food canning plant, who’s been running an insider-trading scam using the names of people at an old people’s home.
As for the titular gambling chip, it’s a distracting affectation for a supposedly professional hitman, who spends so much time fiddling with it, you wonder if he has time to set the scopes on his sniper rifle. Finnish reviews for this entry in the franchise were particularly damning, possibly because Maria Haapkylä, star of the Maria Kallio police series and hence something of an antithesis to Vares in Finnish media, is pretty much wasted as Sole, a mentally-troubled heiress who may have initiated a whole chain of strikes and counter-strikes in the Finnish underworld out of a fit of man-hating spite. But the critical reaction may also stem from the lost possibilities that Mika Karttunen’s script seems to side-step, including Vares as a police suspect, the possible involvement of one of his old colleagues in some of the subsidiary crimes, and a bizarre sub-plot about the victim’s brother falling in love with a cougar barmaid. Vares is something of a bystander for much of the film – his sole contribution to the action for almost half of it is simply being the victim’s boyfriend. He does, eventually, put some crucial clues together, but as in several other Vares films, ends up as little more than a witness to two criminal factions as they follow their own protocols of vengeance.
Perhaps the novel was similarly confused. Its original publication followed the entirely unexpected Vares story, the near-future sci-fi elegy Hard Luck Café (2006) which leapt a generation into the future to a Finland wracked by global warming and overrun with refugees. But such excitements were discounted once more, written off like a bad dream as we returned to Vares’ low-level sleuthing in this story — perhaps our hero has suffered more than one catastrophic blackout, and I will have more to say about this as we continue our Vares movie watchathon. There is, it seems, no career path for our hero. He remains trapped in the wainscots between middle-class Turku and his drinking buddies on the wrong side of the tracks. He never quite makes enough money to get an office, or an actual assistant. Success always eludes him; he’s always back where he started, getting hammered in the same pub, where the real-life owner, Tapio Korpela, has gradually insinuated himself into the action in ever larger walk-on roles, playing himself, here lurking uneasily at the edge of several scenes in a T-shirt that advertises Kukko lager, carrying a tray unconvincingly or making a meal out of operating a television.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.