Your novels have been labeled Nordic Noir. Do you agree with that designation and if so, what drew you to that style?
Definately they can be labeled Nordic Noir. When a started the Helsinki Homicide -series in Finnish in 2001 I wanted to write realistic crime novels. Some of the books that I had read at that time didn’t describe the police work or the criminals in the way that they really are.
I think my background in journalism influenced me a lot. Crime reporters also hear good stories that don’t make the news.
Unlike many of the divorced, troubled protagonists we often see with a darker story, your lead character, Detective Kari Takamaki, is married with children. While you’ve indicated the detective’s personal life isn’t a central part of the story, how do those elements shape both your character and his approach to the crimes?
I have to go again back to the real policemen in Finland. Of course there are broken marriages, alcoholism etc, but you don’t see multiproblemed persons. So my focus has always been on the crimes, investigation and criminals. That is the world of Helsinki Homicide -novels. I think they are much more interesting topics than the the personal life of the protagonists.
Detective Takamäki is a quite normal Finnish man.
Scandinavian countries have an image in the United States as comparatively crime-free. Is that a challenge in writing or translating your novels for a US audience?
Well, I once compared Minnesota and Finland and the crime rates seemed to be about the same. A lot of Finnish crime is related to alcohol and Finland has traditionally had a high rate of violent crime.
We have biker gangs, Estonian and Russian criminal organizations and even one severe case of police crime where the head of the Helsinki Narcotic Police is charged on major hash smuggling.
But the image of crime free Scandinavia suits us just fine.
In your other novels, you’ve chosen motives and themes that seem “headline” inspired—political murders and terrorism for example. In BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, you open with a courtroom scene where a rape victim is being “raped” again by the system. Do you intend to explore social issues in your stories or use them as a departure, as emotional leverage, especially with a polarizing issue such as sex crimes?
Prison sentences for sex crimes – well, almost all crimes except murder – are quite lenient in Finland. Around the time this novel was published in Finland 2012, it was debated in public a lot. Victims hardly ever want to take part in this discussion and the media can’t report what happens behind closed doors.
This was one reason for the opening court room scene. Of course it is also an important part of the story.
What’s the best advice—and harshest criticism—you’ve received as an author?
I think the best advice goes back to the nineties. We were writing radioplays at the time and I learned how to tell the story and advance the plot through dialogue. Good crime fiction book can at times slow down, but can’t stop.
Critisism? I usually relates to the characters. Some want more personal life -stuff, but it a decision to focus on the crimes.
You are a successful journalist and author in your home country of Finland. For which of these careers are you most well-known?
I have worked as a crime journalist since 1991 and from 1996 on a national Channel 3 TV News. Quite many people know me from that, but also 20 published crime novels add to this.
Six of your books have been translated into English. Is there an inherent danger in translating the stories from your native language to English? Are there ever any subtle changes as a result?
I don’t see changes as a danger. On the contrary we have to add some descriptions. For example 100 % of my Finnish readers know what the Finnish Parliament house or Helsinki Railway Station looks like, but not too many US readers have this knowledge. So we have added these kinds of things to the stories. Also some Finnish names are quite difficult to foreigners and we have changed some of the longest ones. The storylines remain the same.
It is no secret that Scandinavian/Nordic crime fiction is a very popular genre right now. But who do you think truly pioneered this category, and when?
In Finland the crime novel boom began in the 90’s and it really hasn’t stopped. Of course there has been very popular authors in Finland in earlier decades, but the genre didn’t get any literary respect although readers liked them. Swedish authors have also been widely read in Finland. The international popularity began really with Stieg Larsen’s books.
Do audiences compare your books to those of Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell – and if so, how do you feel about that? Is it even possible to compare your work to theirs?
Not really. When I began the Helsinki Homicide series in Finnish in 2001 and had decided that I want to write realistic crime novels. Crimes would be the kinds that could really happen in Helsinki. I also wanted to focus on the police work – how the crimes are solved – instead of the policemens and –womens personal lives. Like in reality the crimes are never solved by a one policeman or –woman, but it is teamwork. So they are different from Larssons or Mankells books.
I want to potray the police and the criminals in a realistic way. I don’t want to raise the criminals to heroes, but at the same time I do not want to play it down. It is interesting to write about why the crime happened, what followed and how the crime changed peoples lives.
Finland has about half the murder rate of the U.S. Other counties in the Scandinavian region have an even smaller crime rate as compared to Americas. Yet crime fiction is selling briskly. Why do these comparatively non-violent countries so enjoy this genre, in your opinion?
Unfortunately, we have everything from the bikergangs to the Russian drugsmugglers and school shootings. Add also a large amount of alcohol-related violence. Crime is an unpleasant phenomenon, but at the same time it is like a black enlarging mirror which magnifies the societys greed and wickedness. Why readers enjoy this? Finnish crime novels are good ecxiting stories that describe the darker side what the normal readers never see.
Are Russians the “go to” villains in Finnish crime fiction?
They were, but it became a sort of a cliché. Many writers seem to avoid them at the moment.
Are there any major differences between Det. Takamaki and his American counterparts? Or, are police procedurals fairly consistently crafted in terms of basic plotting?
Good police procedurals are not tied to the place nor time. It doesn’t matter if the cop is from Helsinki, Washington DC or Buenos Aires. All cops – at least honest ones – think alike. They want to get the bad guys behind the bars.
How much does weather in your native country – the harsher, longer winters, etc. – affect the tone of your stories?
Almost all of my books happen in the fall, usually during 4-5 days. Why? I think it is because I write in October-November. The sun really doesn’t shine then which makes it a good time for crime stories.
How do you prefer to classify your novels? Scandinavian Noir, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Nordic Noir – some other category?
Scandinavian Crime Fiction is the main genre and Finnish police procedural the sub-genre.
Your books are known for their direct writing style. I’d imagine this is very similar to your news writing. Am I wrong, and if so, what are the differences between the two?
Well, first of all news writing is fact writing, especially in TV where you also have pictures to support. No need to tell what the courthouse looks like when you can show it. News writing is the base – no question about that. I don’t like to slow down the story by excessive descriptions. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word has to have a meaning for the story.
Do you think your books, and those of fellow Nordic crime fiction writers, address social issues in a more honest way than American crime fiction does?
There are several ways to address social issues and of course the societies also differ. I don’t like to preach about them like some writers do. It’s better to hide them in the layers of the stories and let the reader realize them themselves – or pass them. I can’t really say what is the more honest way. I like to do it my way.
In a 2012 interview, you mention John Grisham as your favorite writer. Is this true? Who else influenced you, or made the biggest impact?
I like Grishams earlier books. They are well written, have interesting plots and I also like the way he builds tension. I could mention also Ed McBain plus a Finnish author and friend Harri Nykänen.
How often do you visit the U.S.? Do you do book signings or promotional tours here?
I have been in the US many times, usually once a year. We have done tours or signings in Minnesota-Michigan area and in New York and Washington. In 2016 I was in Seattle.
Between your journalism, television reporting and crime novels, you’ve seen numerous changes in the industry. What do you see as the most significant change?
First major change were mobile phones in early 90’s, next one was even bigger, the internet and the third is social media. Now in the fourth phase these are converging together, but I think this is just a beginning.
Anything in your “crystal ball” for the future?
Journalism won’t die and people will still read books.
Can you tell me (phonetically) how your name is pronounced in English?
I think it is, at least this translation machine http://upodn.com/phon.asp gave just: yarkko sipila
English: Ice Cold Crime (www.icecoldcrime.com)
Italian: PNLA / Piergiorgio Nicolazzini Literary Agency (www.pnla.it)
Other languages: Elina Ahlback Literary Agency (www.ahlbackagency.com)