2014’s As Red As Blood, first book in the Snow White Trilogy, answers a question I didn’t know I had, which is “what would happen if a plucky girl detective like Nancy Drew wandered into a Kurt Wallander  novel?” Not that seventeen-year-old art student Lumikki Andersson had any intention of playing detective or getting involved in the affairs of three foolish classmates.
Having made a break with her traumatic childhood by moving to Tampere to attend a prestigious art school, Lumikki’s goals are straightforward: focus on schoolwork and those (solitary) hobbies that interest her; get good marks and graduate. Her plans do not include “find thirty thousand blood-soaked Euros drying in her school’s darkroom” and “help those three idiots, Tuukka, Elisa, and Kasper, deal with the fallout from stumbling drunkenly away with a crooked cop’s bribe money.” Yet when Elisa appears to her for help, the supposed loner can’t say no.
The blood belongs to Natalia Smirnova, whose scheme to flee back to Russia with the money ended with her murder in the winter snow. The money belonged to Boris Sokolov, Natalia’s partner in organized crime, and was originally intended for her lover, bent narcotics copper Terho Väisänen.
Just Natalia’s attempt to steal the money followed by her murder, would have been quite sufficient to poison Boris’s and Terho’s business relationship. The fact that the three drunken students strolled off with the bribe money while nobody was watching makes a terrible situation worse, as neither the gangsters nor the cop have any reason to believe or trust the other. Each suspects the other of taking the money and then lying.
While Terho is a bit of a nebbish, Boris is determined to keep Polar Bear, the pseudonymous management of the criminal organization, happy. He is willing to do whatever it takes. If that means applying pressure on the cop by kidnapping the cop’s daughter, Boris is fine with that.
Unfortunately for Elisa, Terho is her father. Even more unfortunately for Lumikki, the people assigned to do the kidnapping don’t really know what Elisa looks like, beyond the fact that she wears a distinctive hat. A hat Elisa happens to have loaned to Lumikki….
People looking for a series where a young woman batters her way through a crowd of thugs probably should look elsewhere; Lumikki does have a certain amount of experience with personal violence and does attend a Body Combat class, but she also doesn’t have a whole lot of interest in getting shot. And the bad guys all have guns. What the plot underlines is the usefulness of regular cardio workouts and long distance running . And, I guess, the fact that it’s a bad idea to enrage heavily armed mobsters.
I compared Lumikki to Nancy Drew; Lumikki compares herself to Lisbeth Salander and Hercule Poirot). All such comparisons are, when you come down to it, a bit exaggerated. Lumikki doesn’t as much sleuthing as one might hope, although she does manage to uncover a lot of important information in the investigating she does do (and some of that information is clearly setting up the plots of later volumes). Most of this novel consists of her attempts to survive the awkward tangle into which she has been drawn, thanks to her sudden friendship with Elisa.
In keeping with the author’s realistic ideas about the crime-fighting abilities of art students, the gangsters are hardly efficient engines of criminality. They spend a lot of time working at cross-purposes, thanks to miscommunication and a basic lack of competence on the part of the lower ranks—incompetence which is handled, eventually, but not in ways from which the employees can learn.
While this is labeled as a young adult novel, it does venture into adult themes (and not just stuff like narcotics, official corruption. and murder, which I assume kids become familiar with in grade school). There’s a certain pair of pink handcuffs that comes in handy, part of the plot is driven by blatant infidelity, and there’s a scene where Lumikki briefly poses as a prostitute . Not necessarily what I expect in a YA novel , but not out of place in this one.
Overall, the novel was a bit uneven. Readers are tantalized with allusions to Lumikki’s tragic backstory throughout the story, but in the end, the backstory is just dumped on readers in one big sodden lump. The ending, while perfectly logical given that we’re talking about four art students, three of them useless, squaring off against a well-equipped murderous gang, seems somewhat abrupt. It struck me, not as the best ending for this novel, but as a plot device calculated to set up the next two books in the series. Yet I must admit that it does so successfully. I am curious about how this all plays out and plan to pick up the next two books in the series when they are released in English.
1: I would like to assure readers that I am in fact aware Sweden, where the Wallander books are set, and Finland, where As Red as Blood is set, are different nations.
2: Looks sadly at cane.
3: I’m just not going to think about the possible implications of Lumikki comparing herself to Salander. As far as I can tell, her history of being abused involved being verbally abused and beaten but nothing overtly sexual.
4: I would claim young adult novels used to be as pure as the driven snow but there’s that scene in Starman Jones where a john is set up to be rolled by a prostitute.
I do recall being very surprised in grade five or six to read a children’s murder mystery where the kid who witnesses the murder spends the rest of the book dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, because it was the first time I’d ever run into a murder mystery that suggested investigating murders isn’t jolly fun.