Book Series: Inspector Kari Vaara

November 9, 2016 | No comments


When it comes to fiction, my biggest passion is Nordic (and especially Scandinavian) crime. I, for obvious reasons, read a lot of Swedish crime and in the last few years, I’ve also been reading a lot of crime novels set in Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. Finnish crime has, however, been absent from my reading list. All that changed when I came across James Thompson and Kari Vaara.

James Thompson was an American-Finnish crime writer who received critical acclaim for his crime series about Kari Vaara. The series consists of four books: Snow Angels, Lucifer’s Tears, Helsinki White, and Helsinki Blood. Thompson was working on a fifth book, called Helsinki Dead, when he unexpectedly passed away in 2014.


When Inspector Vaara first is introduced in Snow Angels, he is working as the police chief in the town of Kittilä in Finnish Lapland, a hundred miles into the Arctic Circle. The book takes place during kaamos, a period between December and January when the sun does not rise at all (also known as polar night). Inspector Vaara and his co-workers investigate the murder of a beautiful Somali woman, whose brutalized body has been found in the snow.

I thought Snow Angels was nothing less than brilliant. Of the over 250 books I have read so far this year, it is one of only three books I have given a five star rating. It has everything I want, and expect, from Nordic Noir and hardboiled Scandinavian crime novels. The plot is great with macabre twists and turns you do not see coming, and the characters are multifaceted and intriguing. It is gritty, dark, and complex, and most importantly, it has a real sense och space and time.

“Years ago, when I was working on my master’s thesis, I went to New York for a semester as an exchange student. What struck me most was the sky. On that side of the world, so far away from the North Pole, the sky is flat and gray, a one-dimensional universe. Here, the sky is arched, and there’s almost no pollution. In spring and fall the sky is dark blue or violet, and sunsets last for hours. The sun turns into a dim orange ball that transforms clouds into silver-rimmed red and violet towers. In winter, twenty-four hours a day, uncountable stars outline the vaulted ceiling of the great cathedral we live in. Finnish skies are the reason I believe in God.”

The highlight for me is definitely the protagonist himself. Kari Vaara is such a complex character with a mile-long list of flaws. At the same time, he has an inner moral compass that guides him. I thoroughly enjoyed what his relationship to his American wife Kate, his colleagues, and his parents added to the story. I was also intrigued by the effect the environment (small-town versus big city) has on him.

In the second book, Lucifer’s Tears, Vaara and Kate have moved to Helsinki, and Vaara has restarted his career as a homicide inspector in the city. It is a stark contrast to the setting of the first book. In the last two books, Helsinki White and Helsinki Blood, Vaara instead runs a rogue black-ops unit, using crime to fight crime. There is a definite trend throughout the series, with the plots becoming darker and Vaara’s personal and professional life getting more out of control, while he at the same time is becoming less and less likable for each book. His health and his home-life is falling apart, and with it, so does his moral compass. I would like to think that Vaara would have gotten redemption in the fifth book, if it had ever been finished.

Rumors says that the first three books will be made into films. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, or like we say in Sweden and Finland – I’m holding my thumbs – that it will happen. Even thought I did not think that the later books lived up to the expectations set by Snow Angels, this series as a whole is a great example of why I love Nordic crime fiction.

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