Evil Things by Katja Ivar, January 2019, 320 pages, Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN: 1912242095
Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here and here.)
Feeling curiously devoid of emotion, Hella ran down the steps to where a canvas sack stood on the frozen earth, a dark brown stain spread across it like some exotic flower. She motioned towards it.
“Is it inside?”
Ivalo Police Headquarters, Northern Finland, 13th October 1952.
The speck on the map that is the Sami village of Käärmela, surrounded by marshes and hills, makes Hella wonder why she is determined to go there. Chief Inspector Eklund, her boss, has dismissed the idea of a crime. An accident, he says. An old man disappears, probably got lost or drunk. Hella points out that a man born in that forest wouldn’t get lost. Nor would he leave his six year old grandson alone for days. Eklund is scornful. The man is probably not the perfect grandfather that she imagines. She tries again, pointing out that the local priest’s wife has reported it to them. Won’t an uninvestigated report ruin the section’s statistics? Eklund seems to grow uncomfortable. He orders Hella to tell the priest’s wife that with winter snows due they cannot send an investigator but will take up the case in May when the snows melt. After a long unpleasant haggle which includes suffering Eklund’s opinion that Hella would be better off looking for a husband at the next town ball, Hella takes Eklund’s offer of vacation time to visit the village. But only for a couple of days. She forces a smile at her boss.
Käärmela, near the Finnish-Soviet border.
The priest’s wife, Irja, again tries to reassure the silent little boy that his grandfather will return soon. Four days ago an old woman had dragged the boy into Irja’s home claiming that his grandfather was missing, probably dead, and that she had had to beat the boy to get him to leave the empty house. He won’t eat, sleep or speak, said the woman. It's Irja’s duty, as the priest’s wife, to look after him. Irja tried to reassure the distraught boy as he clutched their old cat for comfort. Putting him to bed, she immediately wrote a letter to the Ivalo Police about the missing grandfather.
Ivalo Police Headquarters, 14th October 1952
Persistently irritated by the sign on her door which reads “H. Mauzer, Polyssister” (she was Helsinki’s first woman detective for God’s sake, not a tea-maker cum hand-holder), Hella is further annoyed to see that her colleague Ranta has again been snooping around her office. She concentrates on leaving her desk in scrupulous order with a view to appeasing Chief Inspector Eklund. At home she packs: a rucksack, walking boots, warm clothes, notebook, her coffee pot. She shudders at having to accept a lift north with Kukoyakka, the only logging driver willing to take her. She decides to take her gun. True, the armed conflict in the countryside is quieter now but if Kukoyakka pushes his luck… She smiles.
Käärmela, same day.
The priest's wife has another visitor, a neighbour of the boy and his grandfather. Has he come to ask after the little boy? No, he says. He has decided to buy the missing man’s house. The boy can live with her and the priest after all. He reaches into his coat and pulls out some notes, pushing them across the table to her. The price of a bag of fish. He rises, announcing the deal done. Irja is outraged and pushes the money back at him explaining that now is not the time. “Bitch!” For a moment she is frightened of him but she stands her ground and he leaves.
Irja had asked the Ivalo police about the disappearance but had been treated with contempt. The boy keeps asking when they will arrive and despite her own doubts she humours him. When a tall angular figure in a parka and carrying a pack approaches their house through the dusk the boy is positive it is the police. Then he whispers in disbelief, “It’s a woman”...
EVIL THINGS is Katya Ivar’s first novel. Raised in both Russia and the US and now living in Paris, Ivar has given us, in EVIL THINGS, a gripping police procedural set in an unfamiliar time and place for most crime readers. Set in a remote community in a time of political turmoil but also a time and society pushing women to conform to tradition, Katja Ivar's collected portraits of the women who conform and those who don't are strikingly drawn. Hella Mauzer herself, as befits a central “cop” figure, is always at the edge: the outsider, the misfit, considered by her colleagues to be mad, bad and possibly dangerous to know. The first woman investigative police officer in Helsinki until disgraced, downgraded and moved to a remote posting in Ivalo near the Finnish-Russian border, Hella is convinced that there is something to investigate in a grandfather’s disappearance from his remote Lapp village, she wangles her way onto the case and organises a search party. When they find animal-savaged human remains in the forest snow it is Hella who realises that the remains are those of a woman and this is truly a murder investigation. Ivar’s slow reveal of Hella's character and past add to the suspense in this mystery filled with strong character writing. Ultimately Hella leads us into a frantic race and final battle of wits to uncover and confront both society’s demons and her own. A strong start to what I hope will become a Hella Mauzer series.
Lynn Harvey, March 2019