Lehtolainen, Leena - 'My First Murder' (translated by Owen F Witesman)
It has taken 20 years for the highly-regarded Leena Lehtolainen's first Maria Kallio novel to be translated from Finnish, so plaudits to Amazon Crossing (an American imprint) for allowing English-language readers to experience her work, and to Owen Witesman for a smooth translation, albeit in US English. Was the wait worth it? Yes and no. The plot is a standard one for a crime novel: a group of choir singers meet to practice at the summer house of the family of one of them, Tommi. As the book opens, Tommi is found dead. Maria Kallio is the detective assigned the case, her "first murder", because her boss is an alcoholic and her immediate superior is going on holiday. Maria is only a temporary detective, trying to decide on a career in the police force despite the entrenched anti-women attitudes she constantly encounters, or whether to continue her law studies.
The story is told from Maria's perspective as she interviews the remaining singers, a task which is a conflict for her as she knew several of them when they were students together. After establishing herself in their eyes in her new, different role, she spends the rest of the book revisiting each of them and digging further into their various accounts, as well as looking into the affairs of the victim and his colleagues and family. Each chapter is headed with a line from the poem quoted in the preface, which the reader can see is gradually more and more relevant to the murder case.
Maria is an attractive protagonist, but the rest of the characters are not well-realised. There is a lot of detail about what kind of teacups they use or the decor of their apartments, as well as a long section about the technical ins and outs of their singing. Despite the level of detail, the witnesses and suspects donít gel as individuals, requiring quite a bit of effort to keep them all straight in the mind at each appearance, especially as many of their names are very similar.
Eventually, the true personality of Tommi comes to light via the papers he leaves behind as well as some more tangible clues, as Maria works out various motives for the crime. After a few false theories, she discovers who is probably responsible and embarks on a confrontation scene. The solution, however, has a "pick any of the characters" feel to it, given that everyone had reasons to dislike Tommi, rather than one that provides any emotional resonance.
While Maria is investigating this crime, she has to continue the routine police work that comes her way. A brief account of how she deals with a rape case is more involving, I found, than the main murder plot. Overall, the book is a pleasant read but not especially innovative even for its times. It provides a fascinating picture of Finnish life, but as a crime novel it is firmly for those who like a traditional whodunnit. In terms of Scandinavian crime fiction, MY FIRST MURDER has more in common with, say, the Gotland-set books of Swedish author Mari Jungstedt than with the other translated Finnish crime fiction that is available by authors such as Harri Nykanen and Jarko Sipila.
Maxine Clarke, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.