We GAD bloggers are a tight-knit bunch. Cut one of us, does another not bleed? Take aim at Kate’s praise of John Rhode, will Puzzle Doctor not leap in front of the bullet? And when the most adventurous among us — I refer, of course to Grand Viscount Bradley Friedman, LLC — ventures of into hitherto unexamined climes, do we not follow, fearful of what hackneyed plot elements may be reheated and served up to his delicate palate as fresh fare?
So with Brad having braved both Scandinavian crime fiction (he took a course and everything) and modern crime novels sold on their similarities to the works of Agatha Christie, I was inspired to follow suit with my own little twist: I would read a modern Scandinavian crime novel likened to the works of Agatha Christie that also promised a locked room problem. You’d think such conditions would be difficult to fulfil…well, I give you the following publisher’s blurb for Cruel is the Night (2013) by Karo Hämäläinen:
Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.
So: tick, tick, tick.
But that it were so simple, however; publishers are often fond of selling their books based on principles they do not actually uphold (the blackguards, what?) — hence Brad’s understandable borderline-apoplexy every time something is sold with a “Christie-esque” tag brazenly telling porky-pies on its cover. For people who work with, market, sell, and presumably read books, it turns out publishers sometimes don’t know very much about books. And so this Christie-homage, black comedy, locked-room mystery has three problems:
1) it bears precisely zero resemblance to any of the works of Agatha Christie
2) it is not a black comedy
3) it is not a locked-room mystery
It’s not even a locked-room mystery in the manner of Chris McGeorge’s Guess Who (2018), which at least has people locked in a room for the duration. Instead, we have…well, let’s get into what we have.
Do not be distracted, we have serious work to do.
We open on a telephone ringing in an apartment in the new, fashionable, very real, and very expensive Shard building in London, and are told that no-one answers the phone because there is no-one left alive to answer it. Jumping back in time 12 or so hours, we meet journalist Mikko and his wife Veera on a plane, landing in London, on their way to visit Mikko’s childhood friend — and now unscrupulously rich ex-banker — Robert in his swanky new apartment in the Shard. Over the course of the coming evening, these three and Robert’s new girlfriend Elise will drink, reminisce, and kill each other, leaving only one of them alive and on the run.
Firstly, that’s a great hook, but it couldn’t be less Christie-esque if it tried. Hell, it’s a far more Highsmithian conceit, and selling it as such would make the experience much more pleasant for those of us not misled into expecting something with subtly misleading character touches and lashings of obscure clues. Instead, we’re told straight up that Mikko intends to kill Robert, and then for 60% of the book everyone talks at great length about economics and morality, a few completely unsurprising character relationships are divulged (pretty difficult to be surprised by anything among a cast of only four characters), and we learn how long it takes Veera to smoke a cigarette, since at once point she and Robert go out on the pretext of buying her some cigarettes — see, they’re not even locked in the flat — and have time to rent a room elsewhere in the building, have sex, discuss some elements of their past, fall out, fight, and then actually go out and buy some cigarettes and take three out of the packet so that no-one else will be suspicious about the length of time they were gone.
That’s about a Christie-an as it gets. And this is in no way Hämäläinen’s fault, as he didn’t even try to write that sort of book. He’s been done a hideous disservice by his publishers here, as they have quite singularly failed to perceive what makes a book an homage to Agatha Christie; for future reference, “putting a murder in there somewhere” ain’t quite enough.
Indeed, there’s scope here for a piece of classic misdirection perfectly in the Christie vein when we’re told that one person — referred to as he in the “now” sections of the narrative, so we know the ladies are for it — survives the night, but it’s entirely passed up. It must be either Robert or Mikko who survives, and as you read the book it becomes clear by about the 15% mark which one of these it is. However, Robert has a servant in the flat for the evening helping prepare and serve dinner, who is never given a name and instead frequently referred to as “the servant” — a few subtle touches could easily mislead you into thinking this was a female servant, only for a late reveal to show it was a man all along and he kills them all and then scarpers…but, not to be. Fairly early on we’re left in no doubt as to the muliebrity of said servant, and that possible avenue crashes closed (in fairness, this wasn’t really an option if Finnish has gendered definite articles. Uh, so does it?).
Serious work on-going.
So, yeah, we’re left with a book about intellectual Fins drinking, having long and involved conversations, and three of them dying by violence. Again, there’s a lack of understanding as to what a black comedy is — again, not Hämäläinen’s fault — as while there’s the odd funny line (“What did the tickets cost?” “Money.”), there’s no comedy black or otherwise in these pages. Or maybe it’s a Finnish thing, with observations like:
The more important thing about the champagne was the display, not the utility. It may be perverse but in no way is it an economic oddity. Much of global capitalism is based on the immaterial promises offered by branding.
…having them rolling in the aisles in Pori. Unless, of course, publishers Soho Press have a mole in the works who has published this book, which makes the above complaint about branding being so important, and then deliberately sold it entirely on a conscious mis-branding of what it offers…but the irony there is too deep to be anything more than accidental, I can’t help but feel.
Also, yes, most of the prose — the story is told in first-person chapters, with each of the characters getting a PoV at different times — is like this. Dine out on such beauties as:
Managing uncertainty is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. You may still have to convert that ability to manage uncertainty into a strength, and the requires years of work at hardening your natural resolve. I had the necessary prerequisites and had purposefully trained myself to load the dice in my favour.
He had calculated that at his salary the twenty-Euro tax value of the personal use benefit would come out to an eight-Euro net cost (“you have to calculate it using the marginal tax rate”). His current bill was less than that, just the monthly connection fee and a few calls and text messages. Mikko’s phone was about five years old, a basic model without a camera or data. The kind of device you wouldn’t dare remove from your pocket in a public place. Teenagers thought he used it for a retro vibe.
Jocose it certainly ain’t. And Robert, Veera, and Mikko all “speak” in exactly the same voice, with only Elise — younger, possibly drunk or high, or possibly just terrifyingly and blankly simplistic in her view of anything, we’re never really given the chance to find out — emerging as a distinct sound amidst all the noise. Quite a lot of the time, I had to check which of the other three PoVs I was reading, because everything is described in the same way, often more than once, and there’s a unilateral nihilism and buttoned-up over-intellectualisation of just about everything going. And you especially feel that someone should have checked their “Agatha Christie homage” claim when the author writes a book that contains the lines:
I have a hard time understanding how people stand Agatha Christie. The books are just endless tea drinking, and the only purpose for the things that do happen is to create suspicions about each character in turn. By page seven the detective knows who the plotter is and why, but he sits on his information until the author gets her two hundred pages filled and finally gives the little dickhead permission to demonstrate what happened.
Now, sure, a character’s perspective is not necessarily the author’s perspective, and another character is reading Murder on the Orient Express, but I think we need to be a little more careful before going — y’know — “Homage!“. How quickly Hämäläinen’s plot becomes transparent, and how little actual mystery there is, would immediately preclude any such comparisons being made by anyone who had actually read any of Christie’s work, especially as Hämäläinen goes out of his way to assure us that:
The time it took to read the summary was an appropriate amount of tme to spend on a crime novel. The essentials could usually be condensed into a few pages.
When the deaths happen, about 70% through for the first one, then a gap of moralising and agonising, and then two in quick succession, there’s a lack of artistry that’s surely deliberate. We’re treated to an extended riff on the old “I put the poison in his glass, but then — ohno! — a song came on the radio and we put the glasses down without drinking because someone wanted to dance and I had to make sure he got given the correct glass at the end of all that distraction” motif which can only be forgiven in its clumsiness by a very generous assumption that the author is making it clunky and awful because of how utterly sozzled his characters are by that point.
It can be difficult choosing an appropriate picture.
So everyone who dies dies, and one of the men — I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s the morally-unfettered and hard-nosed, advantage-seeking businessman or the social justice-motivated, ethically-pure crusading journalist — gets in a taxi, leaves the building, accesses secret funds, and flees across Europe. End credits. And I’m left with the sensation of being sold a book that someone didn’t try to write based on comparisons made by people who had no business making them, having been denied a locked room problem, a well-clewed whodunnit, and anything approaching the streak of dark comedy that lights up my twisted little soul.
Brad, do not take this path…