Raid and the Blackest Sheep By Harri Nykanen (Originally Published by WSOY in 2000 as Raid jan Mutempi Lammas; English translation by Peter Ylitalo Leppa. Published by Ice Cold Crime, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9824449-2-4)
For a non-Finnish author (Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh) who has only visited Helsinki and Turku on one wintery occasion (with a side trip to Tallinn to boot) reading English translations of Finnish genre fiction can be a bit daunting when the Finnish landscape, both urban and rural, is an essential character in the story. Thankfully, both author Nykanen and translator Leppa work in concert in this latest offering from Minnesota-based publisher, Ice Cold Crime to make the final journey of an old thief and his young apprentice memorable.
Nygren, the mastermind of a host of notorious fictional crimes in Sweden and Finland, is dying. Cancer has riddled the man, a character of extremely complex and not readily decipherable motivations, compelling him to return to his homeland from self-imposed exile across the Gulf of Bothnia, to settle old scores and to right some old wrongs. But unlike journeys undertaken by protagonists in many contemporary novels (Inman in the American historical novel Cold Mountain comes to mind when reading Nykanen’s story), the old man in this tale does not go it alone.
I’ve not read Nykanen’s other work involving the “gun for hire” assassin Raid because, sadly, I do not read nor speak Finnish. The jacket blurb on Raid and the Blackest Sheep proclaims Raid, the main character in a long line of Nykanen’s previous work, to be the Finnish equal of Dirty Harry. Though predictably playing on the archetype of a taciturn, quietly contemplative, physically adept Finnish male, Raid is indeed reminiscent of the Eastwood character, or perhaps, more succinctly, the close-lipped, dourly humorous detective Sam Spade as played by Humphrey Bogart. The difference, of course, is that while both those characters stood on the police side of the divide between good and evil, Raid is clearly not a cop. Nor is he necessarily morally pure as he goes about his task of chamfering Nygren from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
But the title is misleading. This isn’t Raid’s stage (other than as background): It’s a story about an old man’s last journey; a story of redemption; a story of nuanced faith and uncertainty about what awaits us after death. Far more complex in character and plot than typical “pot boilers”, Raid and the Blackest Sheep crosses the literary divide between genre and literary fiction and does so without losing the snappy dialogue and sense of humor that makes crime fiction such a favorite with readers.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, quick read which still satisfies your hunger to be amazed by story, structure, plot, and craft, Raid the Blackest Sheep is a book to fit the bill. My only criticism? The last chapter is wholly irrelevant and unnecessary. Nykanen and his story would have been far better served, in this humble American author’s opinion, if the tale ended with Chapter 21. Personal taste? Perhaps. Still, don’t let this observation deter you from buying a copy of this adroit, tightly woven story of an old man on his final pilgrimage. That’s the beauty of reading: You get to make your own decision, once having finished this finely tuned tale, as to whether my observations are spot on or off the mark.
Highly recommended. 4 and ½ stars out of 5. (This review first appeared in the December 2010 issue of New World Finn).