Book covers


   Harri Nykänen: Behind GOD's Back.

    Bitter Lemon Press. £8.99.


The comedian, Tommy Cooper, many years ago, told a story about his visit to a Chinese restaurant.  Inevitably, there was confusion.  Cooper was a curious chap and he asked the waiter if there were any Chinese Jews.  The waiter reminded Tommy that the restaurant was not in China.  They had apple and lemon juice but no Chinese juice.

Today comedians would refuse that joke.   And a non-Jewish author would avoid the searchlight that Harri Nykänen focuses on his Jewish community in Helsinki.  Behind God’s Back is the second novel to feature Jewish and Finnish cop, Ariel Kafka.  Calling a policeman Kafka will appeal to some but in a novel that is always believable and realistic the literary nod is surprising if easily forgiven. 

The modern thriller is different from the detective story of the classic genre.  Back then the detective and reader had to wade through characters all tainted by a motive for murder.  Today the job of the detective is to first find someone with a motive, someone and something to resist inexplicable death and sacrifice.  In Behind God’s Back, the initial enquiries of Kafka produce little, neither evidence nor motive.  Like the reader, Kafka is obliged to imagine what might have happened.  Behind God’s Back differs from modern overheated Scandinavian noir.  It echoes the measured crime fiction of Swedish pioneers, Mia Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.  Detective Ariel Kafka also has a pleasant resemblance to the great reassuring Maigret.  Kafka is a problem solver and not a two fisted adventurer.   He understands human failing but his enquiries invite explanation rather than dig deeply into perversion and secret dirt.  Kafka knows that investigation and conclusion depend on the accounts of others even if their telling is partial.  Neglect those partial accounts, and the investigator will sacrifice perspective.  His approach means we have a sensible and an honest view of the Jewish community of Helsinki.  Much does happen behind the back of God but this is a consequence of human failing rather than the contrived evil villainy that we witness in the efficient but overheated novels of Scandinavian writers, Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo.

People need to earn a living, and that is always dangerous.  Business and crime require deceit and betrayal.  Distortion prevails and it impacts both victims and victimisers.  An impartial Maigret type figure is essential.  When a romance from the past returns to Finland, the reader can be forgiven for fearing romantic melodrama but Nykänen ensures that Kafka is true to himself.  The detective remains aloof.  Kafka is neither an outsider nor a willing participant. Instead, we have a man obliged to communicate and to understand.

The connection with Israel affects all but it defines manners and conversation rather than character.  It influences schemes and design but it is not a corrupt root.  This is plausible, and such realism ensures a rewarding read.  The characters have weaknesses, and some suffer and some do not. The surprise is not that this happens but how it does and to whom.

By Howard Jackson