Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jorma Napola's one-off private eye novel from 1962

Private eye novels have never been big in Finland. I don't really know why, but I have some thoughts: private eye is a product of a culture that relies much on individuals and their right to do something, to correct things, to have a vengeance. Finland is pretty much a culture that relies on authorities, on the fact that someone else takes care of things. (Of course there are regions which resemble more Wild West, but more on them later. Perhaps.)

Private eyes in Finnish literature can be counted with one man's fingers. Reijo Mäki has Vares, Markku Ropponen has Otto Kuhala, Ari Paulow has Jesse Hackman.. and there you go. Tapani Bagge's Onni Syrjänen is not really a private eye. In the seventies there were some writers who dabbled in the genre, like Matti Kokkonen and Totti Karpela, but their legacy has not endured. (One distinctive point in Finnish P.I. novels is that they pretty much go for the parody of the genre, especially Reijo Mäki's Vares, or at least are very jokey.)

One shiny example of a good Finnish private eye novel is Ruuvikierre by Jorma Napola. The Finnish title might translate as "The Big Screw". I read the novel for the first time just recently, when I was suffering a bad case of stomach complaint.

The private eye hero in the novel is one Jaakko Piira, who mentions couple of times having been in the war and having fought first against the Soviets, then against the Germans. Piira is your typical private eye, tired, lonely, suffering from melancholy, could be an alcoholic. The book starts with Piira complaining that he's got no job. All he has is him and a spider weaving its web in a corner of his office. He gets a job, though - a nice and coy young lady asks him to check upon a man who was living in her and her aunt's house as a tenant and is now disappeared. Piira promises to look into the matter and finds himself getting woven up in a web of deceits and lies and blackmail. There are couple of murders and some cops who don't really like Piira.

The book was first published in 1962 and the author, who worked as an art critic and journalist, had won the first prize in a crime novel contest a big publisher called WSOY had put up. Napola won also the second prize, but more on that later.

Ruuvikierre has its share of clichés, but if you happen to enjoy these particular clichés, you'll enjoy Ruuvikierre too. There's a strong noirish tone in the book and the style is fittingly hardboiled. Napola also does a nice job getting those American clichés smuggled in Finnish settings, even though at times I found Piira's wisecracking a bit too un-Finnish. You know, we're not really accustomed to people yapping all the time. There are some implausibilities in the plot and I didn't really believe in the scene that took place in a rehab center, but all in all I really much liked this book. As for the foreign readers, suffice it to say that this could've been published in English and no one would've noticed any difference.

Timo Kukkola, who's written the history of Finnish crime literature, doesn't give much weight to Napola's novel and says only that it's a weak attempt to bring the American influence in Finland. He seems to think that hardboiled literature is only what Chandler and maybe Hammett had to offer and says - at some other point - that the fourties should be left alone. Yet he writes page after page about some locked room mysteries and mansion murders.

Kukkola seems to have some joy when he gets to mention that Napola didn't write another novel. He didn't know it all. A small paperback publisher called Viihdeviikarit (and the man behind it, Kari Lindgren, also the man behind Book Studio and now Book Man) put out in 1981 a novel called Ministeri on murhattu/A Minister Has Been Murdered - by Jorma Napola. The back cover told that Napola had won the second prize in the crime novel contest mentioned above, but WSOY didn't want to publish two novels by the same writer (I don't know why they didn't use a pseudonym), so it had remained unpublished for almost 20 years and Viihdeviikarit had dug it up. I remember reading the cheap paperback for at least two times in my teens.

I didn't remember much of it, though, when I decided to reread it after having finished Ruuvikierre. The books don't really resemble each other, except that both have men of principle in the lead. Neither will back down. The murder in the latter book seems impossible at first, but Napola doesn't give much thought to that and focuses more on bitter human intercourse. The book ends in noirish tones of despair and bitterness, even though it's really nowhere as bleak as Ruuvikierre. It's not as humorous either and the plot is not as intriguing as in Ruuvikierre. Ministeri on murhattu seems also to have some tones of the Maigret novels by Simenon.

Jorma Napola's both books deserve rereading and perhaps Ruuvikierre should be reprinted again as an affordable paperback.


Anders E said...

I was going to comment that one reason for the lack of Finnish novels about private eyes is that there preumably are hardly any real PIs in Finland - just like in Sweden. But then I checked the Swedish online yellow pages and found no less than 38 private detective agencies. The weirdest thing is that apparently there is one in Malå, a small village way up in the interior of the deep north. I can't help wondering what kind of cases there could possibly be up there.

Juri said...

Yes, I got to thinking about the same thing myself. There are private eyes, though, here in Finland. I remember that one even advertised itself with a large window panel that pictured Sherlock Holmes! In Turku we have at least one who's also a motivating force behind the nationalist right wing movement.

But in the American P.I. books the private eyes almost never do things private eyes really do. Or if they do, it's only in the beginning and the stuff changes into a murder investigation or some such. So it's mostly a fantasy of some sort, why couldn't it work in other countries, too?

Anders, I'll be contacting you via Facebook, I've been meaning to ask you something.

Anders E said...

Sherlock Holmes in Turku? That is funny, nationalist right wing or not.

I just had to check that agency in Malå (pop. 3,500), and it turns out it's a consultant firm specializing in risk management (that's the detective part, I guess), management/leadership and health care. Not really anything like Mike Hammer. Then again, on this tourist brochure you can see the kind of mean streets they walk.

(the long URL forced me to add a line break to make it readable)

Juri said...

Actually Sherlock Holmes resided in Tampere (I used to live there over 10 years ago).

Juri said...

But - he hastens to add - a novel about *that* kind of private eye agencies might be intriguing. It could also be something like the Vegas TV series, you know, the one with James Caan. Glitter, babes, health care...

yumyums said...

Thanks for this, juri. Jorma Napola was my grandfather. I don't speak Finnish very well, so I've never read his novels, but I've always wondered what they're like. (I work as a book editor and freelance writer myself.)

So, kiitos!


Juri said...

Marleena, thanks for your comment. It would be interesting to hear more about your grandfather, and if you're one of the heirs of Jorma Napola, I'd very much like to hear what you would think about reprinting Ruuvikierre.

yumyums said...

Unfortunately, I didn't know my grandfather very well. As you know, he was a journalist and a novelist, but he was also an artist (painter and sculptor). I only met him a few times (I live in Australia).

If you'd like to chat more, feel free to email me at marleenaforward at gmail dot com.

Juri said...

Thanks, Marleena - I'll be in touch.

Anonymous said...

I also came across "Ruuvikierre* quite accidentally, and was stunned by its quality. I have no idea if Napola read Chandler's famous essay "Simple Art of Murder" (from 1950, available at, but his Jaakko Piira meets eminently the resonant description of a PI in the last but one paragraph.