James Thompson, Finland’s best-selling international crime writer, returns with another high-stakes Inspector Vaara mystery, Helsinki Blood. Vaara, who “is but a shadow of his former self,” views the case of a missing girl as an opportunity for redemption. As he begins his search, “so begins a deadly game of cat and mouse, with Vaara assuming both roles in turn, never entirely certain which part he is playing,” writes Bruce Tierney in our April 2013 Whodunit column.
We caught up with Thompson to discuss writing and the merits of dark, gritty fiction.
Describe your book in one sentence.
Helsinki Blood is the next book in a critically acclaimed series of pitch-black noir—Snow Angels, Lucifer’s Tears, Helsinki White, Helsinki Blood—that reaches its climax at a fever pitch after a thousand pages of a hell of a wild ride.
If you could take one of Inspector Vaara's characteristics for yourself, what would it be?
I’m unclear: What would I take, or what is it? I would take his toughness. I define being tough as the ability to carry on, no matter the pain or difficulty. What do we share? Temperment.
What do you most enjoy about writing?
The fictional world is so much preferable to the real one. When immersed in it, I feel like I’m flying.
The world is such a dark place. So why do people enjoy gritty stories like Helsinki Blood?
Not everyone does. Many people like their stories cozy, bright and shiny. There is a problem, but at the end, the protagonist is a better person for having bested the conflict and the world is a better place for his/her victory. I’m not criticizing that. Light entertainment has its place.
“Stop pandering for false empathy. Tell the truth of the character. Tell the truth of the story.”
Dark stories are for those who want to re-examine the world and themselves, to hold up a mirror to the world and themselves and ask themselves what they see. For those who want to question the truth of themselves and the world around them.
It just occurred to me that on my Goodreads page, I have a few quotes. The first three in conjunction could summarize what I think about reading, and what I’ve sought from it.
“We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
— W.B. Yeats, from “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (as an academic and scholar, I’m a Yeatsian)
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.”
? Franz Kafka
“He shall fall down into a pit called Because, and there he shall perish with the dogs of reason.”
? Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law [Liber AL vel Legis]
What's the best writing advice you've ever received?
I remember the moment well. I was working on my first published book with my editor (it’s never been published in English). He read the manuscript, gave it back to me and said, “This is an American book full of boo-hoo-hoo shit. You’re a Finnish writer now. Your protagonist is a sociopath. He likes hurting people. That’s why it’s his profession. Stop pandering for false empathy. Tell the truth of the character. Tell the truth of the story. Give me the MS back after you’ve done it and I’ll read it again.” I did it, wrote a book that told the truth, have done so ever after and will do so forever more. It freed me as a writer.
How do you conquer writer's block?
Never had it.
Another book in the Inspector Vaara series but exploring new themes. It will surprise you.