Silence by Jan Costin Wagner


I am delighted that Lizzy and Caroline decided to host yet another German Literature Month—a blogging event I looked forward to all year, but even though I’ve had a year (since GLM 2013) to select books, I found myself with no concrete plans except the promise to read some Joseph Roth. Then a few weeks ago, Caroline, in a lead-up to the month, made a post with a few book suggestions. There was a name on the list… Jan Costin Wagner, a German writer of crime novels set in Finland….

I ordered Silence, and when the book arrived the cover was different from the one expected. Not a big deal, but the cover of my edition is the film tie-in version, and guess what, I’d seen the film which was excellent btw. I’d seen the film a few years ago, but it was one of those films you’d don’t forget, and the plot didn’t disappear into the ether the minute I turned off the DVD player. So my main concern, after seeing the film version, was that I’d feel a total lack of suspense when reading Silence.

Set in the small Finnish town of Turku, the novel focuses on the disappearance of a young girl who simply vanishes one summer day while on her way to volleyball practice. The thought that a human being can vanish without a trace is eerie, but in this case, it seems that history has repeated itself. The missing girl’s bicycle is found in a field right next to a makeshift shrine to yet another young girl who vanished from the same spot 33 years earlier. It’s impossible to not connect the two crimes. The first girl, raped and murdered, was eventually found in a remote lake, and of course, the police and the community fear that a similar fate awaits the second girl. Is the same killer, possibly now geriatric, responsible for the fate of the two girls? Or is this a copy-cat crime?

silenceSilence begins back in 1974 and within a few pages we know exactly who the killer is. The suspense, and there’s a lot of it, is generated by the unknown fate of the second girl, 33 years later, and whether or not the police will solve the two crimes. Interestingly the film diverged from the book in several ways. The plot is still recognizable, but the film includes some bold differences. The film is a much more traditional investigation, with an emphasis on the visual (some of the more painful details not flushed out in the book), and the book’s cover indicates one of the crucial clues missed in the first investigation and not touched on at all in the book. The book is quite different (you’ll see why if you watch the film too),  and the inner lives of the detectives following the case are a main focus. Ketola was a young policeman, new to the force when the first girl, a thirteen year old named Pia was murdered, and even though he retires shortly after the novel begins, he cannot forget the case and even drags a model of the crime scene, made in 1974, back to his home in case staring at it all day will wake up some dormant clue.

Another policeman on the case is Kemmo Joentaa, a widower who lives in a home that’s basically become a shrine to his dead wife, Sanna.  Joentaa sees exactly the same presence of the dead when he goes to question Pia’s mother, Elina. People are surprised that she stayed in the same house, and there’s an unspoken criticism that she chose to do so, but Joentaa understands all too well how hard it is to let go.

The girl in the photograph was laughing. A peal of laughter, thought Joentaa, those were the words that had occurred to him when he saw the picture of the girl. Pia Lehtinen.
Joentaa stood in front of the photograph and felt a tingling sensation at the idea that it had been hanging there for decades. Just as Sanna’s photos would still be in the same place. decades from now.

“That’s Pia,” said Elina Lehtinen, who had come to his side. She was carrying a tray with cups, plates and a blueberry cake still steaming from the oven.

“I know,” said Joentaa.

“Of course. You have a photograph in your files,” said Elina Lehtinen.

Joentaa nodded.

“It’s incredibly long ago,” she went on, without taking her eyes off the photograph. “I was thinking about that yesterday, and I was surprised to realize that today Pia would be a woman of forty-six. Hard to imagine.” She looked at him and smiled.

Elina Lehtinen’s  daughter was murdered 33 years earlier, but the parents of missing Sinnaka Vehkasalo are enduring the agony of a missing daughter who’s feared murdered. Elina and her husband divorced after the murder of their daughter, and Pia’s father still can’t talk about it. We see Sinnaka’s parents travelling down the same path as they blame each other over various aspects of their daughter’s disappearance. The contrast of these two sets of parents is interesting and subtle. Elina has managed to attain a certain serenity but we know that it was hell getting there.

“Once I really did have a great fit of laughter,” continued Elina Lehtinen and she was laughing again now as she saw Joentaa’s face.

“An extraordinary fit of laughter, it’s my most vivid memory. On the day my husband left me. He said he was going now, and I started laughing and couldn’t stop until that evening, and the next day I rang my neighbour’s doorbell and they took me to a hospital, and I spent  a long time having treatment there. Is the cake alright?”

“It’s very good,” said Joentaa.

“My most vivid memory,” she repeated. “Everything else is almost just a  … well, a feeling of everything being over. It’s sometimes close, sometimes further away. You talk to people, that sometimes helped me. And now it’s ages ago, but it’s beginning all over again.”

“You mean the missing girl, Sinikka?”

“Yes. It’s repeating itself. When I saw the police officers I wasn’t surprised. Because I’d always expected it to happen again, somehow. Do you understand?”

Joentaa didn’t answer. He didn’t know whether he understood or not.

“I always knew that couldn’t have been all, because some time everything comes to an end, but this never really did. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better.”

The pain and difficulty of parenthood is evident through the glimpses we have of these distraught parents, but there’s also Ketola who’s coming to terms with the fact that his son is mentally ill. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the book. Ketola is obsessed with Pia’s murder–the case he never managed to solve during his long career, but something also gnaws at the corners of Joentaa’s mind.

The silence of the title refers to the things left unsaid–the thoughts we cannot express to people, the spaces left by the dead, and the silence of waiting for answers. The book’s intriguing premise is more than matched by the characters, and I’m delighted to learn that Joentaa appears in other books from this author.

Thanks for the tip, Caroline.

Translation by Anthea Bell


Filed under Fiction, Wagner Jan Costin

16 responses to “Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

  1. Interesting choice Guy finnish setting is great and like idea of crimes years apart

  2. lizzysiddal

    Wagner’s been on my must-read list for ages. Really must do it one day!

  3. I really like the way you’ve compared and contrasted the book and film in this piece. I hadn’t heard of either but they sound interesting, especially given the setting.

  4. This sounds really good. A bit Martin Beck?

  5. Crimes separated by so many years are very interesting to me. I suppose they are generally interesting since there are so many books and films that cover the subject.

    This sounds very good bit I am getting touchy about this subject matter and I tend to stay away from this sort of thing these days.

  6. I assumed the author was Finnish because of the setting, so thank you for making me aware of his German origins. An interesting choice for German Lit Month and an appealing one for crime fiction lovers such as myself.

  7. I’m very glad you liked this. I’ve just finished it and liked it a great deal. I’m reading the series backwards, I’ve started with book 3, then 2 , now I’m reading book 1. So far I liked book 3 best. In book three Joentaa is the main character but the first has started in a compelling way. I hope to review it shortly.

  8. Is it part of a sequence then? What’s book 1? It does sound very well done.

    Howcome a German author is setting books in Finland? Does the author have links there do you know? It’s an unusual country to choose otherwise since it’s generally not that well known.

    • I ordered another title Ice Moon, and it features Joentaa whose wife literally dies in the first pages, so I’m not sure where Silence fits into the sequence.
      The author’s wife is Finnish & he lives there part of the time. I normally avoid crime books written by, let’s say, a British autho, about a Spanish detective, or my least favourite–an American whose main character is a British detective (too much whimsy and lack of authenticity), so I read a bit about the author to ascertain his ties to Finland before I bought the book.

      • I found three books translated in English and Ice Moon appears to be the first.

      • Yes, I share that suspicion, though a book I looked at a while back had a UK author doing a hardboiled US detective and the Amazon reviews were full of Americans saying how they hadn’t been remotely persuaded, which is the flipside of the US/UK issue. I think the US and UK are particularly difficult because the shared language creates an illusion of greater similarity than there is.

        I’ll see your review of the earlier ones before taking a view on this. It sounds good but I’m killed for reading backlog at the moment.

        • I’ve read the same complaint about James Hadley Chase. I’m currently reading another of his novels but it seems a convincing PI American PI novel. Perhaps they weren’t all so convincing. He wrote over 90 and I haven’t read most of them.

    • It’s a series. He has written five or six now.
      I started in the middel but I’m so hooked I’m reading all of them. Every book is a bit different in the approach. Different POVs but Kimmo Joentaa is the main protagonist.

  9. I’m not sure about this one because of the plot but I’m willing to try this writer. I’ll read Lune de glace.

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