The Defenceless – Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

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Vilho Karppinen can’t sleep because of the music in the flat below. Feeling old and doddery, he goes downstairs to ask the young men to turn it down. In the stairwell, one of them grabs him by his nightshirt and drags him into the flat. After an exchange of words, Vilho turns to leave:

Just then a wave of dizziness over came him and his legs buckled beneath him. Vilho grabbed the first lad for support. The boy bellowed angrily and clocked him in the face with his fist. Vilho fell to the floor, knocking his head on the edge of the table. Blood gushed on the stinking living-room rug, forming a pool between an empty syringe and a can of beer.

The following morning when Senior Constable Anna Fekete arrives at work, she’s given the task of interviewing a woman who hit an old man with her car the following evening. The woman is Hungarian, as is Anna.

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More crimes are revealed as a bloodied knife is found by two school girls sneaking a cigarette in the woods behind their houses, and members of the Danish-Swedish street gang The Black Cobras, begin to infiltrate the city along with their drug trade.

Then there’s the case of Sammy, the other young man in the flat on the night Vilho Karppinen hit his head. Sammy came to Finland from Pakistan hidden in a truck. He applied for asylum, tried to quit heroin and waited for a verdict. When he received notice of his deportation, he moved on to the streets and discovered the heroin substitute Subutex.

Sammy started to feel that the only sensible option would be to go straight to the Hazileklek pizzeria the following day and explain it all to Farzad and Maalik, the whole sorry story from start to finish, the drugs, everything. He hadn’t the courage to tell the pizzeria owners about the refusal of his asylum application, though they were the only people with whom he had something resembling a normal contact. He didn’t want to cause them any trouble. He already felt ashamed of himself in their presence, unable to trust them. Sammy was convinced he would never be able to trust anyone on earth ever again. And yet, by himself, it was impossible to survive. He desperately needed help. He needed food and sleep. He needed to be at peace in his soul. He needed money; he needed Subutex.

Things with Sammy are complicated by the fact that the pizzeria owners who are so kind to him are also friends of Anna Fekete.

In traditional cop style, Anna’s life is also complicated: her brother is an alcoholic and it’s her who checks on him to ensure he’s okay; she also sleeps with her former friend’s husband sporadically. Work isn’t made any easier for her by her colleague, Esko Niemi, who is racist, sexist, unhealthy, an alcoholic and miserable. He veers from determination to show the young police officers how it’s done, hoping to capture members of The Black Cobras, to imagining a different life for himself.

The Defenceless has all the ingredients of a good, socially motivated, crime novel: two complex detectives; a diverse cast of characters including three elderly people, an asylum seeker, gang members and their relatives, and a number of seemingly disparate strands that are nicely weaved together by Hiekkapelto.

There are two small things I didn’t like, however. The first was, I think, an issue with the translation of some of the dialogue which meant that it felt very stilted in places. The second was with the character of Esko. I usually have a high tolerance for language used in novels but even I blanched at the racist names Esko’s character chose to use. I’ve no doubt police officers like Esko exist but his language was unpalatable and only vaguely challenged within the book.

Overall though, I found The Defenceless an interesting and engaging take on a changing society.

 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.