Posted: March 11, 2012 in Finland, review

Helsinki, near a bridge over railway tracks there are two dead Arabs, one has been shot and mutilated, the other has fallen or been pushed from the bridge. Ariel Kafka, of the Helsinki Police Violent Crimes Unit, is sent to investigate. Ariel is one of only two Jewish policeman in Finland, and the action takes place during the time between Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] which adds to the dark foreboding atmosphere. When two more dead Arabs are discovered shot in an Iraqi owned garage, the case becomes more complex.  A meeting with Ariel’s brother, Eli and a representative from the Jewish congregation, at which they suggest a terrorist attack may be being planned, and an offensive comment from his colleagues allow him to deal firmly with the old chestnut of double loyalty. 

I’m first and foremost a police officer, second a Finn, and only third a Jew.”

In  passages at the start of the novel  light humour is used to imply  hope for the future. 

Imam Omar was evidently a tolerant man. At least he didn’t give the slightest indication that Stenman and I were unwelcome guests, although it was unlikely that a Jew and a policewoman were everyday sights at the offices of the Islamic society.

But later as more dead bodies are found, shot , blown to bits and strangled the story becomes even more convoluted, even kafkaesque, with drug dealers, SUPO [security police] and Mossad entering the action. The presence of a Jewish policeman should not necessarily lead on to Mossad and Israel. The novel begins to suffer  a form of literary schizophrenia in that it is not sure whether it is a spy thriller or a police procedural, and becomes a little bit confused and confusing. I am still not quite sure who was fooling who, and why certain characters thought they could play off one very dangerous group against another possibly even more violent group. But at least it does try and deal with controversial subjects with some kind of balance. 

“There are all kinds of legends and fairy tales going around about Mossad,” he said. “The majority probably started by Mossad itself.”

Some reviewers  have said there is very little sense of place in Nights of Awe, and I think this is because far from being an outsider Ariel is part of the tiny but active Jewish community. You could easily be in Brooklyn or Montreal as we are introduced to so many Jews, and it is a downside of the book that they are somewhat stereotypical characters.

But despite the falling off in the second half, the cliched back stories, the stereotypes, and the characters the sitting on the political fence, Nights of Awe is  an interesting and thought provoking read. 

I will be on the look out for the sequels when published, which hopefully will contain more unique content about Finland and Ariel’s interactions with his colleagues. 

  1. Maxine says:

    Nice review, Norman. I have read one of his “Raid” novels and there is quite a bit of humour in that, especially Finnish jokes about the Swedes. This one sounds a bit darker than the one I read.

  2. Norman says:

    It is darker Maxine, with bodies everywhere!

  3. Lauren says:

    I liked this, but…I keep waiting for a book with normal Jewish charactes – no Mossad, random Israelis, masses of WW2 trauma every five minutes etc.This wasn’t it. (Bublanski in the Stieg Larsson novels worked surprisingly well, for a reference point..) Yom Kippur as the high point of the plot was unusual, at least. I think I’ve only seen that once before in a Faye Kellermann novel.

    I’ve lived in a few places with very small Jewish communities, and that all rang true. I’m not sure why that means it doesn’t have a sense of place – I suspect a lot of reviewers aren’t used to the idea that Jewish communities exist in lots of places that aren’t New York and so on. Which frankly, I find rather annoying. It contributes to (or perhaps reflects) a surprisigly widespread attitude that people of different religious or cultural backgrounds are not authentically from country X. I mean, I’d argue that a Finnish policeman investigating a crime in Helsinki is Finnish enough, and doesn’t have to talk about saunas, snow and alcohol excessively to make the location come alive. (The plot had enough going on!)

    I liked the first half, where there was investigation and regular crime etc, lots more than the second – all the secret service to-ing and fro-ing was more than a little irritating, and I’m not sure how likely it was that such a plot would happen in Finnland.

    Can’t comment on the translation, as I read the book in German. The sequel is already available here, but at 18 euros it’s a bit pricey – I’ll have to wait for the paperback.

  4. Peter says:

    Norman: You, Lauren, and I agree that this one falls off in the second half.

    Maxine: The first half of this book may remind you of “Raid and the Black Sheep.” It’s dry, it’s deadpan, and it manages the difficult feat of keeping up the pace when not much major happens. It’s an impressive piece of work. As for the rest, imagine reading a book that attaches great moral and narrative significance to a Christian detective’s solving a murder before Easter or Christmas. You might find the moral dimension interesting, or else you might find it vaguely disquieting that the detective feels some extra burden because of his religion.

    I reviewed “Nights of Awe” for my newspaper. Not sure when the review will appear. Keep your eyes open; I’ll post about it on my blog.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  5. […] reviews appear in Crime Segments and Crime Scraps. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  6. […] OF AWE has been reviewed at Crime Scraps, Mrs Wordopolis Reads and The Crime […]

  7. […] Last but not least is Harri Nykänen’s Nights of Awe, a Finnish police procedural just out with Bitter Lemon Press. Set during the ‘Days of Awe’ that lead up to Yom Kippur, it features Ariel Kafka, inspector in the Violent Crime Unit of the Helsinki police and one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland. I haven’t read this novel as yet, but purchased the book on the strength its unusual detective and the reviews I’ve seen for it (see for example Bernadette’s at Reactions to Reading and Norman’s at Crime Scraps Review). […]

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