Kati Hiekkapelto. Defenceless. UK: Orenda Books, 2015.
Perhaps a little diversion for fans of Scandinavian novelists: may we call Hiekkapelto a Baltic Noir writer? Anna Fekete is a senior police constable in what appears to be Helsinki. Of Hungarian origin, her family sought refuge in Finland during the Balkan wars. Anna's workload is already stressful when two seemingly unrelated deaths land on her plate while colleagues labour to stop an influx of the drug-dealing Black Cobra gang. We the readers are privy to who did what. I found it slow moving for some time, i.e. where are we going with this? ... endless unforthcoming interviews in the relevant neighbourhood, no answers to their burning questions.
The story does pick up when Anna finds a connection but it's extremely difficult to reconstruct what are actually three murders. The desperation and loneliness of political asylum seekers is well illustrated in young Sammy (defenceless) who would rather confess to a murder he didn't commit than be deported. Hungarian Gabriella, in the country legally as an au pair, accidentally runs over a man; as the investigation proceeds she inappropriately pesters Anna for friendship. Policeman colleague Esko is bitingly portrayed as a callous, racist, homophobic cop who conceals his own health issues. This is her second mystery novel; Hummingbird was her first. Definitely a promising addition to the world of crime writing.
One-liner: What remains of home when those who live there are gone? (266)
The raid was scheduled for two-thirty that afternoon. By then the last remnants of his hangover would be gone and he would be back on form. He had to prepare, go through the sequence of events with Virkkunen and the team. ... They were in for a great day, the noose was tightening round the necks of these towel heads. You had to admit, the NBI really knew their stuff. And so did he. As he left, Esko glanced in the mirror. Jesus, I shouldn't have bothered, he thought as he locked the front door and felt his chest tighten again. (64)
Assisting the enquiries:
"Have you seen anything suspicious going on out in the yard?"
"Nothing in particular. You sometimes see that rabble loitering in the car park."
"Did anyone look foreign, do you think?" asked Anna.
"You look foreign."
"I don't mean me. I mean the hoodie boys."
"I already told you I never saw their faces. Still, I thought they must have been foreign."
"They weren't speaking Finnish."
"So you heard them talking. What language could it have been?"
"How should I know? I only speak Finnish."
"Do you have any children?"
"I just wondered whether they might have seen or heard something when they visited. Perhaps they could tell us what language those boys were speaking."
"My children don't visit me. They both live down south and get on with their own lives. They're not interested in their mother's affairs." (88)
Her own loneliness:
At that moment Anna felt with chilling certainty that Ákos would never return to Finland and that she'd be left here all alone. It was a strange feeling, as she and Ákos hasn't been close for years. Anna had studied on the other side of the country and hadn't wanted anything to do with her alcoholic brother. Let him drink, she'd thought, let him ruin his life and his opportunities by himself. Once Anna had moved back north, where the family had settled after fleeing from Yugoslavia, they had become closer again. And though Anna reluctantly looked after some practical matters for her brother, they had become friends, more even. Ákos was the only person in the world who shared something with Anna, something that words could never describe. I can't bear the thought of losing Ákos too, she thought. She buried her face in a cushion, but the tears would not come. They hardened into a lump in her chest where years of unwept tears rattled against one another like stones. (245-6)
Rick Mofina. Whirlwind. USA: Harlequin, 2014.
Tornadoes hit a Texas city suburb and in the wake of the devastation, Jenna Cooper has lost her baby Caleb. Enter intern reporter Kate Page, hoping to secure a full-time job. Rather than hurt or killed in the storm, Caleb has been kidnapped by a scruffy young couple for a nefarious purpose. Eventually they are being hunted not only by Kate and the parents, but also by a parole officer, a vengeful ex-con, a Russian mobster, a desperate adoption agency, several police departments, and the FBI ... going madly off in all directions. It's not that exciting but does have its moments.
The pedestrian writing did not grab me, did not involve me in caring much about the characters. Maybe I should have noticed the Harlequin logo before I paid 25¢ for it (book sale). All the women have a background sob story. There's a lot of baby cooing. Motherhood idealized. The Russian is a stock cardboard figure. Cynical, hardhearted moi.
One-liner: "She's taken a few extra spoons of bitch in her coffee today." (272)
"Please help me move this!"
The panic in the woman's eyes telegraphed her agony―she was in the fight of her life.
Once more, Kate was being asked to cross a journalistic line. She was well aware that her job was to observe the news, not take part in it, but her conscience would not allow her to ignore another plea for help. She gripped her side of the wood, heaved and helped toss it aside.
The woman got on her knees, her hands and fingers were laced with blood as she tugged at scraps and hunks of metal, glass and wood while combing every opening in the ruins.
"Is Caleb your child?" Kate asked.
"He's my baby boy." (55-6)
"How was your trip―from Canada, wasn't it?"
"Uneventful," Gromov said. "Thank you for agreeing to help us. You were highly recommended."
"So were you." Maddick offered the beginnings of a bitter smile. "I was advised rather strongly that I should help you."
"Good. You have the information?"
Maddick lifted the corner of the folded sports section of the newspaper, showing a glimpse of a large plain brown envelope.
"Thank you." Gromov nodded to Yanna. "We brought you a box of your favorite chocolates." Yanna passed a small cardboard chocolate box to Maddick. He peeked inside. It held five thousand dollars in unmarked fifties and twenties. (247)
Peggy Blair. Umbrella Man. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Blair's newest Havana novel is a corker. Set in 2007, Inspector Ricardo Ramirez investigates two killings that lead to more. Top levels of police and security buzz with rumours of a pending assassination attempt on Raúl Castro who recently became el presidente. But the name and nationality of the suspect are unknown. Meanwhile Havana is hosting an international trade fair that draws secret agents from several countries. Ramirez is not always included in intelligence briefings ― butting his head too often on the bureaucratic no está autorizado ―but he hooks up with Slava the Russian, both of whom do not trust their bosses.
The action and twists keep coming as they also uncover an illicit plot running Colombian drugs in which Dr. Hector Apiro's girlfriend becomes entangled. Pay attention, because no-one can be sure who the bad guys are or whom they might be impersonating! Havana's sadly disintegrating infrastructure and poverty are aptly illustrated without understating the vitality of its citizens; like most, Ramirez seeks work-arounds to gain information and keep domestic life functioning. The political background is genuine and rich, effortlessly blending with Blair's many characters. A first-rate mystery on a wild ride that puts Blair into top crime-writing ranks.
One-liner: "In the past couple of months," the Captain said ruefully, "Russia's been warming up to Cuba faster than a hooker in the back seat of a police car." (23)
"You'll be at the trade fair as part of the American delegation," the Captain had said. "I want you there when Castro gets his reward‒oops, now there's a Freudian slip," he grinned, " I mean award."
But I don't know anything about cattle," Yaworsky protested. "Anyone who does is going to see that right away. Which one's the heifer, the female or the male? Hell if I know."
"You don't have to know," the Captain said. "These days the cattle business is all bullshit and jacking off. Any good agent should have lots of experience with those." (36)
Ramirez turned to the Ceperos' door. So they were CDR; that meant they listened to everything. The citizens watch groups were supposed to encourage the political and moral welfare of their neighbours by promoting the merits of communism but really their members were snitches. Thousands of dissidents arrested after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion were turned in because their names appeared on CDR watch lists.
CDR leaders reported all counter-revolutionary behaviour to the authorities. This could amount to almost anything: someone with too-long hair, a neighbour complaining about the living conditions, a citizen joking about the Communist Party. Even talking to foreigners qualified as a reportable offence. ...
The only reason Apiro and I haven't been turned in, thought Ramirez, was because we are the authorities. (83)
Klopov pointed to the tray as he sat down again. "Please, try these. The cookies are delicious. The Mexicans call them wedding cakes, but they are actually a traditional Russian dessert." He smiled pleasantly and offered the plate to Ramirez.
Ramirez took a cookie; Klopov another.
"Before I rule anything out," said Ramirez, "I would like to know if anyone serving with the Russian Special Forces has been in Havana recently, if not officially, then perhaps on unofficial business. If so, it's always possible that his gun and ammunition were stolen."
The diplomat popped the cookie in his mouth. "If it was official business, I can't tell you. And if it was unofficial business, no one would tell us." He smiled again. "You know what national security matters are like."
Ramirez had the feeling that the only concrete information he would leave with was the Mexican name for the cookies. (96)
Apiro shuddered. Politics seemed to be a world of dangerously shifting alliances. Russians pretended to be Chechens; Special Forces pretended to be terrorists; men sworn to serve their countries committed murders and were hailed as heroes; countries that were engaged in post-Cold War conflict shared personnel.
He had a feeling that the tattooed man who died on the Malecón had been caught in these cross-currents, that Russia and America were playing some kind of dangerous game. The idea flickered at the edge of his thoughts before he let it go. He was a man of science, not conjecture. (219-220)