The Cold War will always be a fascination for crime and spy fiction and Ivar’s fresh take on the subject has a thrilling and original slant. There is a tendency in Britain and America to assume that the history of the Cold War somehow belongs to us and the Russians. It’s an arrogant misconception that a lot of Scandi-noir writers have sought to redress in recent years by giving a Nordic perspective (Arnaldur Indridason in Iceland and Steig Larsson in Sweden among them). Now Katja Ivar brings the situation along the Finnish border with Russia into focus as Evil Things is set in Lapland. I was tempted to refer to that region in the extreme north as exotic and remote but in fact it’s the frontier between East and West so the Cold War couldn’t be more relevant, more alive with daily danger and a constant edgy tension. Ivar has brought us a novel set at the coal face, as it were, from a place where the divide was a day to day reality. The little village of Kaarmela is a microcosm of the wider conflict but also an examination of how ordinary lives in small places were impacted by political decisions made thousands of miles away. Ivar is well travelled and has an understanding of the West/East conflict, she takes a balanced approach in telling this story which makes it all the more credible. It’s not easy determining where the good guys are or who has the moral high ground, which is as it should be if a good story is to be believed.
Evil Things reimagines the Finland of the 1950s very convincingly, the warp and weft of the political and social setting. The novel is particularly good on the ordinary lives of people because this is about more than the Cold War, it’s also about misogyny and the struggle women faced in achieving recognition for their role in society. It’s a crime novel with modern sensibilities, mainstreaming gender politics and re-examining history.
I know I bang on about the definition of history in historical fiction, but history isn’t the past it’s what we know of and how we interpret the past. Twentieth century European history has often excluded the role of women, which Ivar addresses. Her research gives a different complexion to our understanding of history, the role of women in the Finnish police force for example, and opens the door for an exciting detective story. Evil Things is the kind of novel that demonstrates the power of fiction to expose some of the short falls in our knowledge and interpretation of the past. It is also a reflection on how far we still fall short today, you will be struck by how little progress we have made in some areas (only last month the Metropolitan Police was called out for its lack of equality – again!). Although Ivar never strays from her measured tones, this is a novel that can make you quietly angry about the injustice of casual and ingrained sexism.
Finland’s past is complex, it was invaded and occupied by Sweden and Russia and, after independence, fell to the Germans during WWII. Lapland was occupied and much of the Sami population forcibly removed. By the time of the Cold War, Finland was living with renewed animosity, suspicion and fear of invasion. Yet the border wasn’t a physical barrier in the north; people crossed to trade, even went to Russia to shop and drink when they had money. In theory, the emancipation of the country coincided with the emancipation of women and by 1952 when the novel is set women were allowed to take the full police officer exams but few were given any responsibility in criminal investigations. This is the background to Evil Things.
Hella Mauzer was the first female homicide detective in Helsinki but now she is a sergeant in the Ivalo police. She has moved to Lapland but has no idea of the northern villages. Desperate for some real police work she has latched onto a letter from a priest’s wife, Mrs Waltari, from Kaarmela. A village populated by Skolt Sami, the indigenous people; there are no shops, no bars, there is only fishing, hunting and tending the reindeer. The letter says a man has gone missing but Chief Inspector Eklund isn’t keen on investigating. He doesn’t want the budget wasted, the winter is closing in and searching for the body now is too risky, the man may simply have got lost, perhaps drunk on Russian vodka he drowned, that is not a police matter. Hella knows this is most likely but she has an instinct which the chief puts down as overactive female compassion. Hella agrees to go on leave to investigate, while the magnanimous Eklund says she will be paid if she discovers a crime has been committed. The chief insists that all relevant suspects and witnesses are checked against SUPO Suojeupoliisi (security services) registers, can’t be too careful with all the communists about. Hella arrives as the priest, Timo Waltari, and some villagers turn up with a gruesome find, a human torso. When Hella examines the partially eaten body she realises this is a woman and not a local peasant either. While we gradually come to understand why Hella has been transferred to the north she is fighting a battle to get taken seriously by her superiors. Her colleagues may not be interested in what she has discovered but the security services certainly are. As the hunt for the missing man continues it becomes apparent to Hella that the secrets hidden around Kaarmela are far darker and more dangerous than a solitary killer on the loose.
Evil Things is a wonderful blend of spy story and crime thriller, gripping and engaging from the first pages. Hella is destined to become a formidable detective as this series progresses. Sadly the dark heart of the story is all too believable. Ivar has written a debut of stunning subtlety and complexity and yet it’s a proper page turner. When I’d finished reading this novel I couldn’t wait to ask Katja about it, the interview is published alongside this piece, so please check it out.
Paul Burke 5/5
Evil Things by Katja Ivar
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242092 pbk Jan 2019