Monday, 19 October 2015

Book Review - 'The Healer', by Antti Tuomainen

Environmental degradation is inching us ever closer to the eventual collapse of human civilisation. Food shortage is a constant concern - as is the fear of riots brought on by that lack of food. Epidemics of various forms sweep through parts of the world. And in Helsinki, the near constant rain-fall leaves parts of the city flooded. Many take any opportunity they can to leave - fleeing to the north, in the hope of a better life elsewhere. Those that remain do so either out of a sense of stubbornness, or the simple fact that they have nowhere else to go. Helsinki, itself, has become a main destination for those trying to flee the worst of the devastation - though, those who make their way there only find themselves stuck. As out main protagonist observes at one point, Helsinki has finally become a truly international city, though not in the way that anyone had hoped.

This is the setting that the reader is presented with in The Healer, the third novel by Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen, translated into English by Lola Rogers. It is a setting which clearly brings to mind a sort of dystopian science-fiction. It's science-fiction of a very subtle and down-played sort, though - the dystopian, near-future, setting serving as a back-drop for what is, essentially, a fairly straight-forward work of crime fiction.

Our hero is Tapani Lehtinen, a struggling poet (his last collection sold around 200 copies) who, along with his journalist wife, Johanna, is among those determined to remain in Helsinki. Johanna is a journalist of the traditional sort - one who believes that the news should be about important issues. This places her at odds with her employers, though, as the common trend seems to be to focus on frivolous fluff, and celebrity scandals - and, anything else that could give people a temporary distraction. But, none of this concerns Johanna. Her latest story is one focused on a mysterious figure known as 'The Healer' - a serial killer who claims to target those directly, or indirectly, responsible for environmental degradation. And, this is where things pick up for the reader - as Tapani is troubled by his wife's failure to contact him, and becomes increasingly convinced that something has happened to her. Tapani sets out to find Johanna - and, his investigation leads him to uncover details from his wife's past which suggest that she may be more heavily involved in the story than he suspected.

Tapani, despite a career as a struggling poet, quickly proves himself to be clever and insightful in the way that a crime fiction protagonist should be - the moments of revelation which move him closer to the heart of the mystery never feel forced, or overly contrived. More importantly, though, Tapani is a protagonist that a reader can easily identify with - his fear for his wife, and his stubborn determination to find her, is entirely convincing.

Tapani isn't alone in his quest, though. Throughout, he has the support of Chief Inspector Jaatinen - seemingly one of the few honest cops left in Helsinki. And, also, the intrepid taxi driver, Hamid, whose loyalty Tapani is able to win by the promise of a regular fare. Despite her absence, though, it should probably come as no surprise that it is actually Johanna herself who often seems to have the greatest presence in the novel.

Although the 'sci-fi' is largely kept to the background (we are never given any insight into exactly how things got to be as bad as they are, for example), the long-term consequences of the gradual collapse of society are very much present. This is a world where the idea of a police officer stubbornly sticking to his job takes on an almost heroic light when compared to all the others who apparently left for more lucrative private security jobs. It's a world where a civilian can not only be allowed to investigate the disappearance of his own wife - but, practically encouraged to do so by the overworked and severely understaffed police, to the point of even being given access to police resources. It's a world where private security forces may be a greater threat to an innocent bystander than criminal gangs - and, where they can beat a man almost to death without any fear of legal repercussion. Most importantly, though - given what is established early on about the world that these characters are forced to live in, it all comes across as disturbingly plausible.

If the novel has any real flaw, it's the the two halves occasionally seem to strike an uneasy balance. If you are a fan of crime fiction, then the science-fiction tinged setting may feel unnecessary, and a little distracting. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of science-fiction, then the grim and distinctly dystopian setting which serves as the backdrop may seem more interesting to you than the story being told. The science-fiction fan will probably want to know more about the world than is revealed throughout the story, and the crime fan may wonder how they ended up reading a 'sci-fi' novel. But, then, that's the danger of blending genres - there's always that small element of risk that some of your potential readers simply will not be willing to accept the combination.

Another potential issue, though, could be the author's increasing reliance on coincidence as we move toward the end. It could be forgiven, sure - but, in the end, it gives the impression of a protagonist who is relying much more on luck than his own investigative skills. There is also very little in the way of action here, but that is hardly a failing. The desperation of Tapani's search for his missing wife should be more than enough to hold the reader's attention.

In the end, though, The Healer is much more crime thriller then it is science-fiction dystopia - though, as a crime thriller, it is often genuinely tense. Also, the back-drop of a flooded, and close to breaking down, Helsinki gives it all an unsettling and sombre tone.

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