Evil Things is Katja Ivar’s debut novel. It’s a Cold War thriller set in Finland during 1952. A Skolt Sami man has gone missing from a small village in Lapland, Käärmela. Sometimes the old or the young get lost with tragic consequences, but Erno is neither. With winter closing in, the north will soon be cut off for months by the weather, so the Ivalo police are not keen to investigate the disappearance. It will probably turn out to be misadventure. Only Sergeant Hella Mauzer thinks there might be a crime here. Evil Things is bursting with local flavour and period detail. It mines the darkest recesses of the Cold War. It also portrays one woman’s fight to be taken seriously as a police officer, the first female homicide detective in Finland. Evil Things is a genuinely impressive page-turning story. After reading it, I was keen to find out more about the origins of Evil Things from Katja Ivar.
Paul Burke: As a debut novelist, this must be a very exciting time for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it all came about? Have you always want to be a novelist and a crime writer?
Katja Ivar: Most of the time, I still have to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming. I never expected to see my book published. Growing up as an only child, I was a voracious reader but I always thought that writers were special, somehow different… and I was everything but. I’m genuinely shocked and humbled to see my book in print, to read all those amazing reviews, I keep thinking, what are these people talking about, this is only me.
PB: I read a piece that said writing this novel was cathartic for you, following a personal tragedy, that ultimately this has been very positive experience. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
KI: It’s a bit of a cliche to consider writing as therapy, but for me, that’s what it was. In February 2011, I lost a baby girl, Marguerite. She was stillborn. It was a soul-crushing experience, and even though I had my wonderful husband and my two older children to see me through this, my mind went into a loop, I just couldn’t think about anything else. I started writing because I wanted to stop being me, I needed to take myself to a different time, and a different place, to see the world through the eyes of another person. And as I poured my heart into this book, I realised that we can’t always sum up our experiences in just one word. What happened to me and my family was tragic. But it also brought us closer together, turned me into a better person and a better mother. Even at the very depth of tragedy, there’s still hope, and human kindness.
PB: Evil Things is set in the remote region of Lapland. The Cold War is up close and personal. For Finland and the Sami people of the north there is a long history with Russia: cross-border trading and conflict that predates this East-West post-war divide. Can you tell us a little about the situation that underpins your story?
KI: One thousand three hundred and forty kilometres. That’s the length of the Soviet-Finnish border. It runs mostly through uninhabited taiga forests – how do you monitor that? Once I knew what my story was about, I knew it had to happen there, in that very remote corner of Lapland. Evil Things is a book about a time, the height of the Cold War, and a place, a tiny village that gets caught in a conspiracy. About how conflicts between nations affect ordinary people. I believe now, this is more relevant than ever.
PB: You’ve lived in Russia and America, had experience of both cultures, of course mostly post-Cold War, but does that give you a different perspective on the conflict? Evil Things is an illustration of the levels of deprivation both sides were capable of sinking to.
KI: There’s that Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. My childhood certainly was interesting. I was born in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain, and my early childhood was steeped in ideology: good us, evil them, and nothing in between. My family, who refused the Communist values, moved to the US when I was a teen. It was such a shock. Apart from everything else, I suddenly discovered that the freedom of speech was not just a concept, and that, whatever the official narrative, there were people out there who would challenge it. At the heart of the Cold War, just as now, they are the safeguards against evil governments and half-truths. This book is really an ode to people who look beyond the official discourse. Many of these people happen to be journalists. They are the real good guys.
PB: Evil Things wears it’s research lightly, but you clearly went deeply into your subject. Can you tell us a little bit about that? For example, what you found in the archives of The National Police Museum and also how the landscape and the people affected you?
KI: I am a bit obsessive about getting everything right, so when I started on this project, I was terrified I’d make some silly mistake. I don’t speak Finnish so I had to enlist the help of a Finnish-speaking friend to do my research. Luckily, it turned out to be much easier than I anticipated. The National Police Museum in Tampere was a treasure trove of information, they had photographs and uniforms, and could tell me about the way the police training was organised. So was Statistics Finland: if my questions regarding the price of the frozen fish, or a minimal wage for a female state employee in 1952, surprised them, they never said so, nor even asked what I needed that for!
And then, there were things that couldn’t be learned. As a child, I spent my summer holidays up north, in a tiny village that was very much like Käärmela. We stayed in the house of an Orthodox priest, who was a distant relative, and I got to sleep above the stove, just like Kalle does in my novel. That village was terribly isolated, even in summer, and I couldn’t help thinking: what would it feel like to be stuck in a place like that when the snow starts?
PB: Your novel is about the first female homicide officer in Finland, Hella Mauzer (although her situation has changed by the start of the novel). Is it fair to say that this is her fight to be taken seriously, her ambition be seen as an equal in a male-dominated world?
KI: I love Hella. She was not a character I crafted, she just sort of appeared there on the page. She is smart, she is competent, but she is also very stubborn, at a time when women are expected to shut up and be beautiful. I do realise now I wrote her up thinking of my grandmother, who, like Hella, was born in the 1920s, and who overcame incredible odds to become a doctor. She never doubted that she could be as good as any man, and probably better than many. Hella is like that, too. When the novel opens, she is stuck in a tiny police station in Lapland. Her boyfriend left her. She is clearly not in a good place, but she is razor-sharp, and ambitious, and of course she wants to prove herself.
PB: Evil Things clearly highlights the wider situation of women in society at the time, re-examining history to bring the domestic and professional barriers women faced to the fore, often ignored in thrillers. Why is it important to address these omissions?
KI: I think we tend to forget about that, but our mothers and grandmothers have been there before us. It wouldn’t have been possible to write a historical thriller and just ignore that aspect of women’s lives. The way their choices were made for them, the way that, almost without realising, and sometimes even with the best of intentions, women were limited to specific roles. Not only that, their aspirations were limited for them. This is Hella’s dilemma: are you a normal woman if you don’t want the same things as everyone else? And it was only natural that the questioning of the role assigned to her led Hella to question those in authority on other issues, too.
PB: Could you explain about the polissysters and the role expected of women in the police force at the time of the novel?
KI: Oh, that’s an interesting one. As early as 1923, the League of Nations Assembly adopted a resolution in favour of the employment of females in police work throughout the world. But that was the theory. In practice, women who joined the police only did things that men either didn’t want to or couldn’t do for reasons of decency. Body searches on women. Taking children into custody. In many places, these women went by the title of “polissyster”, or matron. It was a slow progress. Women had to wait until the 1950s before they could pretend to do some real detective work. The first woman detective in Finland was Hilkka Hartamaa, she graduated from the Suomenlinna police school in 1948.
PB: Hella, Irja and other female characters are expected to conform, they are seen as emotional, their ambitions and dreams are seen as inferior and are often thwarted by patriarchal norms. Irja’s only previous contact with the police was reporting an incident of violent domestic abuse which they ignored. Are these issues a reflection on modern society as much as 1952 Finland?
KI: This is still very much the case. When a man shows signs of emotion, he is being open and sensitive. When it’s the woman, she is hysterical, and she is not taken seriously. This double accounting dates back centuries, and even though the pace of change has accelerated recently, we are not there. Yet.
PB: Erno’s neighbour approaches Irja, the priest’s wife, to buy a house for a pittance (explained in the novel). He is stunned when she rejects his offer, he becomes vitriolic and abusive. Would Jeremias Karppinen have reacted differently if he was dealing with the priest (a man)?
KI: Of course! He probably wouldn’t have even dared to make his offer. Karppinen is a typical bully, always picking up on those he considers as his inferiors. A priest’s wife, that well-behaved, quiet young blonde, he thought she’d never dare stand up to him. And maybe she wouldn’t have, if it was her possessions that were at stake, but she was fighting the corner of an orphaned child, and that made her strong.
PB: Hella rejects the “model” for a woman of her time (marriage, housewife, mother) and yet she harbours several misconceptions about Irja (her dreams, her art, her passions). Is she a mass of contradictions, a survivor, “neurotic”, strong willed? How would you describe her?
KI: It is so easy to judge other people by the way they look, and Hella, who is not perfect, falls prey to that. She doesn’t realise at first that strength comes in different forms, that one can be many things at once. Hella’s past experiences have hurt her terribly, and she is like a hedgehog, protecting her inner being behind a facade of sarcasm and criticism. Also, there’s a conflict between what she expects of herself and what the others expect of her. Maybe this is the reason readers seem to like Hella so much: for all her exotic and difficult life, she is one of us. It’s not easy for her and at least part of the problem is herself.
PB: How do you think writing a historical novel can help us to understand both the past and the modern world better?
KI: I firmly believe that the past informs the present, throwing a light on our contemporary woes. Especially now, with all the tensions between East and West flaring up again. We’ve been there before. We need to learn the lessons. For me, this much is obvious. But then, I’ve studied contemporary history, so I am probably biased.
PB: We have more women crime/thrillers writers than ever. Do you think this is making thriller writing more realistic when it comes to female characters?
KI: I’ve started reading a crime novel recently, and the main character was that typical alpha male who kept his calm under all circumstances, whilst panicky ladies around him gasped, and shrieked and swooned. The premise was interesting but I never got past the first chapter. I mean, seriously? So yes, I think it is high time we had more realistic female thriller characters – and not only cast in the victims roles.
PB: What is next for Hella? Anything you can share at this stage?
KI: I wrote Evil Things as a standalone story, but the characters grew on me, and I suppose I was caught in the game. Hella’s next adventures are with my editor now. She is still stubborn, still misguided. In this new novel, she sets up a PI practice in Helsinki and she stumbles across a web of lies. What Hella doesn’t realise, until it’s too late, is that the most dangerous of lies are those we tell ourselves.
PB: What kind of books do you like to read? What would you recommend at the moment?
KI: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am a huge fan of John Le Carre. His books are elegant, atmospheric and suspenseful. Apart from that, Val McDermid is a firm favourite, her Place of Execution is one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. All household names, really. More recently, I’ve discovered David Young’s the Oberleutenant Karin Muller series. I loved how original, authentic and intriguing these books were. This is what I am striving for, too: writing a thought-provoking and gripping Cold War police procedural. The sort of story that would make you gasp and make you think, long time after you have turned the last page.
Our thanks to both Katja and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
Evil Things by Katja Ivar
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242092 pbk Jan 2019