Source: Review copy
Publication: 11 January 2019 from Bitter Lemon Press
Hella Mauzer was the first ever woman Inspector in the Helsinki Homicide Unit. But her superiors deemed her too ‘emotional’ for the job and had her reassigned. Now, two years later, she is working in Lapland for the Ivalo police department under Chief Inspector Järvi, a man more interested in criminal statistics and his social life than police work. They receive a letter from Irja Waltari, a priest’s wife from the village of Käärmela on the Soviet border, informing them of the disappearance of Erno Jokinen, a local. Hella jumps at the chance to investigate. Järvi does not think that a crime is involved. After all, people disappear all the time in the snows of Finland. When she arrives, Hella stays the village priest and his wife, who have taken in Erno’s grandson who refuses to tell anyone his grandfather’s secret. A body is then discovered in the forest and she realizes that she was right; a crime has been committed. A murder. But what Hella doesn’t know, is that the small village of Käärmela is harbouring another crime, a crime so evil, it is beyond anything any of them could have ever imagined.
There are a whole number of small independent publishers who consistently come up with really interesting books. Bitter Lemon is one such, alongside the amazing Orenda Books, No Exit Press, Fahrenheit and others. Kudos to them for enriching our lives and finding the authors we never knew we needed to read until they were put in front of us. Kudos to all of them.
There is a little frisson of excitement I get (too much information?) when I recognise that there’s a new protagonist in town who whets my crime reading appetite. Hella Mauzer, our protagonist in Evil Things produced that tingle and she is undoubtedly a keeper.
When we meet her, she is stuck in bureaucratic hell. It is 1952 and Hella had been able to progress beyond all the chauvinistic barriers in the Police force to become the first female officer in the Helsinki Homicide Squad. Not that hers wasn’t a tokenistic appointment, but just the same, she has paved the way, or so she thought. Then she finds that breaking through isn’t enough to be a trailblazer; something happens at a crime scene and she is immediately demoted and sent to a police station in Lapland, Finland’s most northern and remote region, for being ‘too emotional.’
There she finds herself immersed in minutiae, watched over by a sexist boss who cares more for neat reports than helping the victims of crime. Fed up, missing her (unhealthy) relationship and the cut and thrust of Helsinki homicide, Hella jumps at the chance to investigate the disappearance of a man from a small village close to the Finnish/Soviet border.
The Finnish military and political situation was difficult and complex during the Cold War period because of the country’s close proximity to the Soviet Union and Katja Ivar’s novel, whilst not in any way becoming mired in dealing with the complexities of Finnish Soviet relations, takes full advantage of that fact.
Once in Käärmela, Hella stays with the village priest and his wife. The wife, Irja had written to the police about the old man, Erno Jokinen’s disappearance and has also taken in his grandson, Kalle. Kalle is pretty traumatised and won’t or can’t say anything about what happened to his grandfather.
Hella is a thorough and dogged investigator and she trusts no-one, including the priest and his wife. Investigating on her own is difficult, but she knows if she asks for help she will either lose the case or have it shut down, so she perseveres, knowing that winter is coming and she must solve the case before she gets snowed in.
Ivar does a great job of showing us the characters; Hella is prickly, stubborn and determined and the priest’s wife Irja is also more than she seems at first; neither well suited to her role nor as convinced as she might be about Hella’s ability to get justice.
As Hella finally begins to understand the truth of what happened she is confronted with a massive dilemma, should she serve her own interests or continue her quest for justice? It is in the last chapters of the book that we finally understand exactly what has happened, not just in Käärmela but we are also given Hella’s backstory, which is quite revelatory.
The action really picks up as we understand what the titular ‘evil things’ refers to and the book moves from being a police procedural to something more akin to a spy thriller, which could have been a problematic plot development, yet for me it still retained its focus on characterisation, and that carried it through with flying colours.
Verdict: I really enjoyed the first outing of Hella Mauzer, a character I really like, and I will certainly look forward to reading more.
Katja Ivar grew up in Russia and the U.S. She travelled the world extensively, from Almaty to Ushuaia, from Karelia to Kyushu, before finally settling in Paris where she lives with her husband and three children. She received a B.A. in Linguistics and a master’s degree in Contemporary History from Sorbonne University. Evil Things is her debut novel.