Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence has history repeating itself to an unnerving degree. In 1974 a young girl named Pia Lehtinen disappears; her body is subsequently found at the bottom of a lake. Thirty-three years later a second teenager vanishes from the same place, leaving her bicycle behind her. The scene seems an almost exact recreation of the first, which remains unsolved. The police are mystified – is this new crime the work of the same man, or is a copycat at work? And what has happened to the second girl, Sinikka Vehkasalo?
This is the intriguing premise to a very Nordic book, set in Finland and written by the German-born Wagner. Despite taking place in June, a time of year when it stays light all night (many of the characters have difficulty sleeping, but this has little to do with the lack of darkness), there is an overcast feel to the novel – appropriate enough for one that concerns a child killing unsolved for three decades. Wagner tells his story from multiple viewpoints, and leaves us the job of putting them together. This has the dual effect of increasing both the reader’s knowledge and their helplessness; there was more than one occasion when I wanted to reach out, put a hand on a character and stop them acting in a particular way – even when I knew this was impossible, or that their beahviour resulted from the very best of motives.
Wagner’s cast is full of torn, conflicted people. Kimmo Joentaa, one of the team of detectives assigned to the new case, is mourning the death of his wife; Antsi Ketola, whose retirement from the police begins the book, is still haunted by his inability to find Pia Lehtinen’s killer; and Timo Korvensuo is a man whose connection to the case is at first mysterious, but whose behaviour grows increasingly alarming and fractured as he tries to come to terms with his past actions. Korvensuo is the dark heart of the book – thoughts of his children are constantly with him, and one scene in which he meets with Pia Lehtinen’s still grieving mother is very powerfully done. I held my breath (or felt like I did) during it, all the time nervous about where it would lead, and what would be revealed.
Wagner’s writing style is simple but effective, using repeated motifs – the photograph of a smiling Pia in her mother’s living room, Korvensuo’s children playing by a lake – which give the book depth and resonance. The plain language also acts as a contrast to some of the book’s revelations, and the main twist towards the end is handled well – turning a seemingly complex narrative into something much more easily explained. If you see it coming, you’re a lot more perceptive than I am.
In Barry Forshaw’s Euro Noir (the book responsible for recommending Silence to me), Jan Costin Wagner cites Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1958 novel The Pledge (one of my favourite reads of the last year) as an inspiration for his book. ‘I’m intrigued by the way in which justice can be done,‘ he says, ‘even when the timescale involved in is longer than we might like it to be. I try to allow the books to take precisely the time that is required to tell the tales – the approach, in fact, of my detective Kimmo Joentaa.‘ Readers in search of cheap thrills and easy answers need not apply. Those looking for something more enduring should acquire Silence without delay.