Kati Hiekkapelto’s second novel has fully delivered on all of the promise of her first. The Defenceless is a gritty crime novel with a pulsing vein of social realism. It is entertainment with a conscience, fiction with heart-rending insight into the real lives of people on the fringes of our own societies.
Life in the Violent Crimes Unit isn’t getting any easier for Anna Fekete. Having tracked down The Hummingbird serial killer in her first major case since adopting detective civvies she is now faced with a complex trail when a man is found dead on the road, apparently run over; but not everything is at it seems.
As Anna connects the pieces between this death, drug dealing and an illegal immigrant her troubled partner Esko is trying to foil an immigrant gang that is attempting to take a foothold in Finland, having successfully established itself in Denmark and Sweden. It is a tense thriller that is extremely well constructed as the cases overlap and collide, but it also has a depth of observation and empathy that lifts it above a simple crime novel.
Hiekkapelto is adept at weaving realities into her stories and her insight into the lives and struggles of immigrants and refugees could not be more relevant and timely. Anna has successfully integrated into Finnish life after her family fled war in the Balkans when she was a child, but she still feels confused about her identity and where her true home is. Sammy is a young Pakistani Christian fleeing the Taliban whose quest for asylum in Finland has been rejected and we see the impact of this legal decision on his life and the choices that are available to him.
These are two very different experiences of seeking refuge and we begin to understand a little through them of what it means to be displaced. Kati speaks with an authentic voice, born out of the lived experience of working with refugees in Finland, on issues that are right at the centre of European debate at the moment. The political aspects of her character are important to her as an author but she manages to work them naturally into her storytelling without compromising the plotting.
Esko is a counterpoint to Anna’s temptation to become personally involved with her work, her need to help. He is an experienced detective, good at his job but set in his ways and clear in his opinions. As a result he is often hard to like but you can see why the department head, Virkkunen, overlooks some of his bad habits to keep him in the team. His context and perspective are different and as a result he is important to Anna’s development and also to the reader’s comprehension. We are all formed by our experiences and Esko requires understanding just as much as Anna or Sammy.
Pull these threads together and they speak urgently into our real world crisis of displacement and the arguments taking place across the continent about how we respond to a mass movement of refugees. The author, through her characters, calls us to see the person who needs our help and not allow divisive political rhetoric to break the bonds of common humanity. Across Europe many people are responding, hopefully politicians will follow suit.
Kati is in the process of writing the third book in the series which will take Anna back to her roots in the former Yugoslavia. It will be a change of setting and scenery that is likely to bring to light further depths to her character. It will be fascinating to see how she responds to the culture of her homeland that appears to simultaneously bring her to life and constrain her with its rigid roles for men and women. It feels like Anna Fekete still has plenty to say to us and the next instalment of her story cannot come quickly enough.
The blog tour for The Defenceless runs from 11 to 24 September. You can follow it, and catch up on dates you may have missed, via the calendar below.