Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykänen

Behind God’s Back, the second in the Inspector Ariel Kafka series is a police procedural from Finnish author Harri Nykänen. I haven’t read the first in the series: Nights of Awe, but I will be correcting that. Starting with the second in the series, I didn’t feel as though I missed much by jumping in, and instead Behind God’s Back was an interesting read from Bitter Lemon Press–a publisher whose name is well-known to fans of international crime fiction.

Behind God’s Back features Inspector Ariel Kafka, a Finnish bachelor, a Jew, who’s just beginning to think that perhaps devotion to his job and the neglect of his personal life may have caused him to miss some opportunities. Kafka is an intriguing main character, a man we want to spend time with. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he’s not a train wreck, but he does have the saving grace of possessing a lively, quirky sense of humour. Not that there’s much humour to be found in the crime under investigation–the assassination style shooting of a prominent Jewish businessman who made the mistake of opening his own front door to the killer.

Behind God's backWhen the novel opens, Finnish police are involved in Operation Jaffa aka Operation Haemorrhoid–renamed for the hours spent “without a break on the hard-edged, unpadded kitchen chair” watching a suspect through a telescope. This case, which purportedly involves a high-profile assassination, sprang from monitoring a group called Seeds of Hate who targeted a handful of “prominent Jews” for hate mail. The organization is also responsible for the kidnapping and beating of a professor, so the threats must be taken seriously.

The situation becomes even more serious when Samuel Jacobson, the owner of a chain of office supply shops is killed when he opens the door to a man who posed as a police officer. Inspector Kakfa, from the Violent Crimes Unit, and a member of the relatively small Jewish community, knew Samuel and briefly dated his daughter many years previously. Stepping into the case and becoming re-involved with Samuel’s family takes Kafka back to his teens when he was deemed not good enough to date Lea, Samuel’s daughter. It’s a weird, almost surreal turn of events for Kafka who, as he investigates, discovers that Jacobson’s company over-leveraged during the Boom years and is now heavily in debt. On top of that, Lea, now living in Israel, is married to a man who has ties to the Russian Mafia.

With a cast of nicely-drawn secondary characters (including a couple of nosy neighbours who keep a handy pair of binoculars close by,) Kafka works his way through the crime and makes the uncomfortable discovery that his much more successful brother, corporate lawyer, Eli is also involved in some shenanigans. As this police procedural unfolds, Behind God’s Back, is mostly a leisurely read–although as often is the case with police procedurals, the plot tends to pile in on itself as the solution nears. The plot does not rely on tension, violence or gore, but instead the emphasis is on Kafka’s dogged pursuit of the truth–no matter where that journey takes him. Kafka’s bachelorhood and relationships with his colleagues are all tinged with humour:

My relationship with Lea had come to an abrupt end when someone had blabbed that, after a party at my friend’s, I had stayed behind with Karmela Mayer, the daughter of the fur shop owner. I had dated Karmela for over a year, and had almost ended up under the chuppah. Karmela lived in Israel these days, and had three children. I still had restless dreams about her large breasts. Lea also moved to Israel later and married a wealthy entrepreneur, or at least that’s what I remembered someone telling me. That’s the extent of what I knew about her family life.

I had dated three other Jewish girls and screwed up those relationships , too. When you add one-night stands, if you wanted to draw a hard line, I was disqualified when it came to every single Jewish family in Helsinki.

The murder of Samuel Jacobson forces Kafka to confront his past as the investigation involves questioning people who consider him an outsider now and not quite good enough for their society or their daughters. The cast of characters includes:

Kafka’s boss, former male model Chief Detective Huovinen who “always looked polished down to the tips of his toes.”

Sidekick Detective Simolin:

a good police officer, but so inherently innocent that he often found himself coming up against life’s realities. He was fascinated by North American Indians. He even had an Indian name, which he wouldn’t tell anyone, and a set of buckskins complete with moccasins and a feathered headdress.”

Detective Arja Stenman:

To be honest, she looked too classy for rough-and-tumble police work. She would have fit right in as the trophy wife of a middle-ranking CEO. In a way, she had been pretty close. She was divorced, but her ex-husband owned, or had owned, a construction equipment rental company. He had sold it in the nick of time before the police and the tax authorities caught up with him. Stolen machinery had been found in the company’s warehouses. In any case, Arja Stenman had been accustomed to a life where you didn’t have to worry about whether the money would stretch until payday. She had clear skin, freckles and a straight nose. I couldn’t deny it: she was easy on the eyes.

While the solution to the crime held my attention, my main interest lurked on Kafka:

Living alone had its advantages, but it wasn’t a dogma or principle for me. It was ninety per cent sad especially when your wildest partying days had passed and started valuing other things.

I don’t know what my problem was, but I attracted the wrong sort of women. They represented one of two extremes: either they were too bossy and domineering, or too meek and adaptable.

Another problem was that all the women my age were divorced and usually bitter about it. Plus they had children, and even though I had met some nice kids, I didn’t want to be a father to the children of a man I didn’t know.

As a bachelor over the age of forty, my relatives considered me a strange bird. I was continuously dodging their attempts to marry me off. “Good Jewish girls,” were foisted off on me under any variety of pretences.

Kafka has an interesting voice, and he’s a character who blends well with his quirky colleagues. The term crime fiction covers a vast range of subjects and cannot fit into some one-size-fits-all description. This series should appeal to fans of international crime, Nordic crime, or police procedurals that are light on violence but emphasize an affection for returning characters.

Translated by Kristian London

Review copy.

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11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nykänen Harri

11 responses to “Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykänen

  1. Interesting review. It’s nice to encounter an Inspector who doesn’t have a drink problem…

  2. I’ve heard good things about this series – thank you for tempting me even further…

  3. A Finnish Jewish detective named Kafka – it all does suggest a rather lateral-thinking crime writer! Why is it that detectives almost always have women problems- except of course the estimable Barnaby and it would be a nice change if he did.

    • But is an absence of women a woman problem? Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford is a happily married man, so there’s an exception. The family squabbles there come from the two daughters.

  4. This detective has the first name of the Little Mermaid and the last name of a tortured writer. No wonder he’s a “strange bird”

  5. I like the sound of this one. I’ll make sure to start with the first in the series though. It’s happend too often in the last couple of months that I read a series backwards and while it’s OK it’s not great.

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