Harri Nykanen translated by Kristian London, March 2018, 268 pages, Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN: 1908524898
Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
April 2010, Helsinki.
In a spacious apartment in the city’s Töölö district, the body of a naked woman is sprawled on a leather sofa. Her back is covered in writing, quasi religious with bible references and the symbol of a cross inside an arch. Detective Ariel Kafka of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit throws his arms in front of his face in an involuntary response to both the writing and a sense of being trapped, then he attempts to distract his surprised colleague Oksanen with a question about the owner of the flat. Scanning the bookshelves for a bible, Kafka finds one. The written reference, Matthew 10:28 has been underlined.
Kafka waits for the medical examiner and as he does so he gets a sense of the apartment as being an elderly person’s home. It reminds him of visiting his aunt’s deathbed all those years ago, a scene which fed his childhood nightmares alongside a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof”. Oksanen returns from talking to the neighbours. The current resident, Reijo Laurén, had inherited the flat three years ago.
The medical examiner’s reaction to the corpse is surprising. It is one he has already examined, the previous day in fact – a suicide and not yet written on. It must have been stolen from the morgue. But the examiner is more interested in the why than the how. He suggests to Kafka that the anonymous tip off about the body is a prelude to something more. Kafka is inclined to agree. A member of Ariel’s team calls in the results of her research into Laurén: one-time musician convicted of narcotics possession, divorced with one child, a restraining order, a year in a psychiatric hospital and employed at a funeral home; Laurén is also a likely candidate for being the dead woman’s unstable boyfriend according to her sister.
The examiner moves the body, revealing an envelope addressed to Kafka. It contains a yellowed newspaper clipping dated 2008, an article about the body of a man found in a Kouvola septic tank. There is also a note written in apocalyptic language which states, amongst other things, that this is not the end of the writer’s work. It is signed “The Adorner of the Sacred Vault”.
Kafka returns to HQ for an update on the dead man in the septic tank. A detective who was on the team investigating the Kouvola case tells him that they ran into dead ends everywhere. They suspected a case of “thieves falling out” and the body had been badly beaten and burned. Kafka asks if there had been anything odd about it. Yes, the symbol of an arch and cross had been inscribed on the dead man’s back.
With this, Kafka gets the go ahead on the stolen body investigation but with absolutely no press involvement. So next day when the case is headline news, he calls the reporter responsible for the story who says he also had an anonymous tip off. Someone is keen to publicise their cause. Kafka and the medical examiner go down to the morgue where the dead woman’s body has been returned. “Here’s our little runaway,” announces the examiner as he pulls out one of the steel drawers. It’s empty again.
HOLY CEREMONY is the third of Harri Nykänen’s books featuring Detective Ariel Kafka to be translated into English (so far five books in all have been published in his native Finland). A well-known crime journalist before turning to fiction, Nykänen’s series of Kafka police procedurals always move at a brisk and steady pace and in HOLY CEREMONY the police team uncover more details of Laurén’s past which includes membership of a religious group, the Brotherhood of the Sacred Vault, at his childhood boarding school and a darker involvement with the school staff. Kafka’s life gets complicated when security records at the morgue implicate the medical examiner himself in the theft of the corpse. The detective and his team race to find Laurén before more people die. But they do.
I like Nykänen’s engaging, mildly eccentric protagonist Ariel Kafka: one of Finland’s two Jewish policemen albeit “a religiously non-observant 40-something bachelor”. I found this book slightly less satisfying than the previous NIGHTS OF AWE and BEHIND GOD’S BACK. Perhaps it is the final grand explanatory reveal (I admit to a preference for a crime novel that “shows” rather than “tells” – which his other books do). But Agatha Christie is no mean example to follow, so I bicker. A great twist of emphasis emerges and the story remains an engaging, conspiratorial mystery, reading well in Kristian London’s translation.
Lynn Harvey, March 2018