Summer Chills: Murder Mysteries of Jewish Finland

July 26, 2019 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

When a longtime crime reporter decides to try his hand at fiction, he might just discover that he has a talent for writing murder mysteries. This is what happened to Harri Nykänen. After 20 years covering the criminal underworld as a journalist for Scandinavia’s largest daily newspaper, Nykänen began penning murder mysteries, garnering Finnish literary awards and contracts for movie and TV adaptations. One Nykänen series follows a Jewish protagonist, a police detective named Ariel Kafka, who often winds up investigating murders affecting Helsinki’s Jewish community. So far, three Kafka mysteries have been translated into English: Nights of Awe, Behind God’s Back, and Holy Ceremony. These are fun summer reads, available in our library.

Jews in Finland

Nykänen’s Kafka mysteries unfold against the backdrop of Finland’s contemporary Jewish community, while touching on its history. According to local tradition, the first Jews to settle in Finland were discharged Russian Army soldiers. In 1858, the Russian Empire (which encompassed Finland) permitted soldiers who had served in Finland to remain there regardless of their religion. When Finland became independent in 1917, the Finnish Parliament awarded Jews full citizenship. Still, the Jewish population remained small, numbering approximately 2,000 people at the start of World War II. Finnish Jewish volunteers fought in Israel’s War for Independence, with the highest per capita participation of any Diaspora Jewish community. In the ensuing years, many Finnish Jews made aliyah to Israel. In 2016, the World Jewish Congress estimated that there were 1,300-1,900 Jews in Finland; most live in Helsinki.

Not many realize that Finland was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II, resulting in the incongruous situation of Finnish Jewish soldiers fighting alongside Nazis on the Russian front. Nonetheless, Finland afforded its Jews full civil rights throughout the war and refused to deport them, although it did deport eight Austrian Jews who fled to Finland.

The Kafka Mysteries

Set during the ten-day period of reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Nights of Awe introduces Ariel Isaac Kafka, a detective in the Violent Crime Unit of the Helsinki police force. Kafka is tasked with investigating a convoluted set of murders involving drug traffickers and Mossad agents. The second Kafka mystery, Behind God’s Back, opens with the murder of Jewish businessman Samuel Jacobson, whose daughter Kafka once dated. In the third mystery, Holy Ceremony, Kafka must discover why a dead woman’s body is covered with religious quotations.

Like many fictional detectives, Kafka is a forty-something bachelor, a melancholy man with a dry, understated wit. He has an older brother, Eli, a lawyer who is prominent in Helsinki’s Jewish community, and he had a younger sister, Hanna; she tragically died by suicide, traumatized after seeing her kibbutz friends die in a terrorist attack in Israel. When challenged about any potential bias in his judgment towards Jewish or Arab suspects, Kafka staunchly asserts, “I never forget that I’m a Jew, but first and foremost, I’m a Finnish police officer.”

Not Jewish himself, Nykänen has said that a Jewish policeman friend, Dennis Pasterstein, inspired the character of Kafka. After researching the Finnish Jewish community and Judaism generally, Nykänen peppered Pasterstein with questions, even including: “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?” Pasterstein’s response was not reported, but the puckish question underscores one of the attractions of Nykänen’s books. They let us glimpse not just Finnish Jews, but Finnish culture generally – who knew that a sauna experience in Finland encompassed social dining?