Life & Culture

The Nordic noir detective you've been waiting for


Britain is in the throes of a full-on love affair with all things Scandinavian, on television, film, and books. From The Killing to the just launched The Bridge, from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to the gore of author Jo Nesbo, it is simply cool to be - well, cool.

And now Nordic Noir has its very own Jewish hero, in the unlikely figure of a Finnish Jewish police detective, Ariel Kafka. Inspector Kafka's first appearance in English was made this month with the publication of Nights of Awe, a wonderfully seedy crime thriller with bodies aplenty and a great deal of philosophical musing on the meaning of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As the bodies pile up and suspicion is thrown on Mossad, Kafka reaches back to his childhood to figure out who is the real killer.

Ariel Kafka's creator is a former crime journalist, Harri Nykanen. Helsinki-born, Nykanen concedes cheerfully that he is not Jewish - "but who knows! My grandfather came from behind the Russian border."

For 20 years Nykanen worked as a crime reporter for the largest daily newspaper in Scandinavia, Helsingin Sanomat.

"That's why I know many policemen," he says. "One of them is Jewish, Dennis Pasterstein, who is now a chief inspector in Helsinki. There is another Jewish policeman in Finland too, but I've never met him."

Ten years ago Nykanen was fired and began writing novels. To date he has written more than 30 books.

"I have three series: Raid, about a Finnish hitman; Johnny & Bantzo, a comic crime series, and the Ariel Kafka books (so far there are four). I have also written a nonfiction book about the Helsinki underworld and some TV-series and screenplays."

Readers of Nights of Awe may be understandably confused about Jewish religious customs as expressed in Finland. As Kafka moves in on identifying the murderer, he is obliged to go to a large family Yom Kippur gathering at his brother's house. Given that Yom Kippur is a fast, it is difficult to interpret this festive family meal at the start of the Day of Atonement. But Nykanen shrugs this off.

"Basically, it's a detective or crime story, not a Jewish dictionary or non-fiction book. That's why there may be many inaccuracies, maybe clichés too. I hope that people will take that into consideration as they read my books".

Which is not to say that this one-time journalist has not done his research. "When I started writing the Ariel Kafka series, I asked Dennis Pasterstein many questions. I asked him if he could go to work on the Sabbath, and what his family thought about him being a policeman. I'm interested in the clash of everyday life and kosher traditions in Judaism. I know that many Finnish Jews are assimilated. Of course, I went to visit the Jewish community. I met Dan Kantor, executive director of the Jewish community of Helsinki, in one of the synagogues. After this I read many books about Jewish traditions, culture (Jewish humour, too), the history of Finnish Jews and Ha-Kehila (the magazine of the local Jewish community)."

Nykanen believes that there are few Orthodox Jews in Finland, although in fact there is a thriving Chabad community. Perhaps his most hilarious - and not necessarily innocent - question to Detective Pasterstein was the following: "If you are in the sauna with your friends, and your friends offer you barbecued sausage which perhaps contains pork - do you eat it to be polite?" The detective's response has not been recorded.

Since Mossad features so strongly in Nights of Awe, Nykanen is keen to point out that he knows Mossad agents.

"Many readers may think that a Mossad operation in Finland would be impossible, but I know a non-Jewish Finn who is a Mossad officer. He was both a Helsinki policeman and a criminal. He was a gun and drugs smuggler, and also sold fake dollars.

"And I also know a Finnish Jew who is an IDF officer. You might recall Mossad's disastrous operation in Norway, where they mistakenly killed a man because they believed that he was a terrorist. So, knowing many unbelievable stories during my career as a crime reporter, I may say that everything is possible."

The Finnish Jewish community, Nykanen says, "is very small but important. There are many Jewish artists, musicians, writers, journalists, including Ruben Stiller, and Congressman Ben Zyskowicz [Finland's first Jewish parliamentarian]. I think that Finland is a good country for Jewish life - or I really hope so".

Kafka, he says, is "a real Finnish Jewish name." His fictional detective is endlessly asked if he is related to Franz Kafka, but according to Nykanen: "The original Mr Kafka used to own a secondhand shop in Helsinki, where I bought my first American jeans, Lee Jeans, in1 968".

Nights of Awe has so far been followed by Ariel and the Spiderwomen, Behind God's Back, and Holy Ceremony, all of which have been published in German, though not yet in English. (Nykanen's UK publishers are considering bringing out the rest depending on the response to Nights of Awe.)

Accepting that Ariel Kafka has a terrible love life, Nykanen amusedly reports: "The most recent book gives hope that Ariel will find a nice Jewish girlfriend, which isn't easy here in Finland because we have a small Jewish population of about 1300, so there aren't so many single Jewish women."

With good nature he accepts my suggestion that he should send Kafka to Tel Aviv and have him work with an Israeli woman detective. "That's a good idea. Maybe I will steal it."

But it does not sound as though Kafka is going to find happiness any time soon.

"Ariel is always a little bit of an outsider and a little bit of a melancholic character. Like Finnish men often are."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive