The Exiled By Kati Hiekkapelto

the-exiledThe Exiled is the third novel by Kati Hiekkapelto (following on from The Hummingbird and The Defenceless) and continues the development of a complex and forthright detective and an outstanding crime writer. Right from the start this author has felt like she brings something different to the genre with her engaging female lead and sharp social conscience and these strengths are now set in compelling and rounded crime investigations.

The setting for this novel has changed from Anna Fekete’s adopted home of Finland to the Balkans, from where she was displaced as a child by war. Anna’s personal history as a refugee fuels both her struggle for identity, as she is pulled emotionally between these two very different cultures, and her empathy with outsiders in their various forms; and both of these aspects are crucial to Hiekkapelto’s writing. Throughout her work the dispossessed are humanised in direct contrast to the pervading Western media portrayal of the other.

The story begins with Anna visiting her family and friends in Kanisza, a Hungarian community within the borders of Serbia. Out with friends shortly after arriving ‘home’ her bag is snatched and later the thief is found dead. Although it seems like an opportunist robbery the discovery of a body pricks Anna’s detective interest and she starts to look for a trail. As obstacles are put in her way she begins to distrust the local authorities, scratching at their veneer, and a thread emerges running all the way back to the death of her father, also a police officer, many years before.

It is clear that Hiekkapelto is at home in this setting and as a result there is a satisfying feeling of immersion into the culture, with the various characters and archetypes feeling real and rounded. We also learn more about Anna herself as she mingles with childhood friends and rubs against the cultural norms that matter so much to her mother. The setting brings another dimension to Anna Fekete through both her pleasure and frustration with an alternative identity; her choices, others expectations, even the weather, this place is so different to the Finland of the first two books and as a result it poses questions.

This is the appeal of the Fekete novels; you have a tight procedural investigation that runs through an absorbing human narrative, connecting you empathetically with the real people that surround you, either in your own community or on your news channels. Maybe it is the combination of punk singer and special needs teacher that allows Kati to both energise the reader and open their eyes. Wherever it comes from this is a talent that is now in full bloom.

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The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

DefencelessKati 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.

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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.

Defenceless Tour

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

hummingbirdIt is a generally accepted truth that exercise is good for you. It is also suggested that part of your regular workout should include a period of vigorous effort that pushes you out of your comfort zone and gets your heart rate up. Alternatively you could just read The Hummingbird, the debut novel from Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto, and allow her writing to achieve both of those goals without you leaving your chair.

The main protagonist of the novel is Anna Fekete, a female lead with a complicated background that will no doubt be further explored as this series develops. On her first day in a new job, switching uniform for the detective scruffs of the Violent Crimes Unit, the body of a girl is found in woods with her head blown off. We’ve already run with the girl and felt her fear but it is Anna’s job to piece together what happened whilst also trying to find her place in a new station with new colleagues and come to terms with her past.

There is no time to settle into her new job, back in the city where she spent much of her childhood following her family’s escape from conflict in the Balkans.  She quickly finds herself on the hunt of a possible serial killer, whilst spending her evenings off duty trying protect a girl she is convinced is a victim of honour violence and reconcile with her brother, who’s experience as an immigrant in Finland is as much a case study in failed integration as her own is of success. The encroaching darkness of the Finnish winter and the inability to switch off from pressures on so many fronts combine to create an intense atmosphere as Anna sacrifices her own mental state in trying not to let anyone down.

These different threads of story, which could threaten to overwhelm the reader, are handled well. Kurdish teenager Bihar tells her story through an extended e-mail that is intertwined with Anna’s ongoing attempts to protect her from a controlling, possibly dangerous, family, whilst the different personalities and backgrounds of the police station are revealed through their interactions with the new recruit. It feels natural as we are drawn deeper into the lives of the key people and their personal stories are expertly interwoven with the police investigation.

The only real criticism is that there was a sense that the main investigation came to a slightly abrupt ending and the horror of the crime wasn’t really justified in the motivation and psychology of the murderer. As the investigation unfolded there had been opportunities to speculate as a reader and try to work out what was happening but again when the truth was revealed it was nothing that could have been guessed at. It felt a little like an end was needed and so one was pulled out of a hat, which left a slightly unsatisfied feeling.

Having said that, for a first novel The Hummingbird delivers a lot. The perspectives on immigration feel genuine and are insightful and the writing is atmospheric and absorbing. The two police investigations, one official and one not, are balanced well and the characters are rounded and appealing such that you want to know what will happen next in both their professional and personal lives. A second instalment is on the way and I look forward to following the careers of both Anna Fekete and Kati Hiekkapelto.