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the healerThis dystopian Finnish crime novel is well above the ordinary.

The Healer is set in Finland in the near future of drastic climate change. Floods, earthquakes and disease have ravaged most of the world, causing widespread cultural upheaval, the disintegration of several countries, wars over resources and mass relocation of populations. Most of southern Europe has been abandoned, there’s plague in Asia and there have been missile strikes on America.

Helsinki is flooded, subject to constant heavy rain, and the social fabric is stretched very thin. Refugees are pouring in from even worse-affected places; those who can are abandoning their collapsing city and heading north to gated communities; squatters inhabit the derelict buildings and law and order are administered by the few remaining police and increasingly by rather sinister private security firms.

Tapani Lehtinen is a poet whose wife, Johanna, has disappeared. Johanna, a journalist, has been working on the story of a serial killer  an apparent eco-murderer of those considered complicit in bringing about the present state of affairs  who has been in direct contact with her. Several families have been slaughtered and Johanna has been liaising with the remnants of the police to find the killer, known as ‘the Healer’.

Tapani begins a frantic search for Johanna and this provides the main storyline of the novel. What police are left are too busy to look for a missing person, although Detective Harri Jaatinen helps as much as he can, and the enigmatic African taxi-driver, Hamid, also proves useful  when Tapani is beaten up, Hamid and his family take him in, and Hamid demonstrates special skills at a crucial moment.

The search for Johanna uncovers secrets and lies, some of which are to do with Johanna’s own past; people are not what they seem and there is an underlying web of alarming connections that gradually become clear as Tapani desperately tries to find his wife before it’s too late. The suspense builds quietly but surely, there are many complications and it becomes clear that the Healer’s activities interconnect with those of people of power and money who are afraid of exposure. Tapani’s search puts him in danger and we don’t know until the very end what has happened to Johanna, or why.

The plot is well-handled and convincing; plenty of mysteries crop up along the way, and some are solved. But it’s the background of social and moral collapse that makes The Healer stand out as a crime novel, and that background is also useful in providing obstacles. Evidence takes a long time to process, or is lost. Procedures and notifications are all delayed and disorganised. Mobile phones and the internet are becoming ever more unreliable and people are frightened and suspicious. All of this adds to the narrative suspense.

The real mystery lies at the heart of the book: what keeps some people going when everything around them is collapsing, when the old codes no longer fully apply, when there’s no one much to care what they do?

Tapani continues to write poetry, although it will never be published. Johanna goes on trying to be an ethical journalist, when her newspaper, one of the last remaining, mostly fills its pages with frothy distractions; Harri Jaatinen still struggles to be an honest policeman and to solve and prevent crime, when most of his colleagues have taken off for safer and more comfortable places. The question is skirted round several times and at one stage Tapani asks Jaatinen directly:

… ‘Why do you keep trying?’

For a moment he didn’t look like Dr Phil. He looked like someone else  maybe himself.

‘Why,’ he said. It was more a statement than a question.

His face had a look that was familiar by now, the faintest trace of a little joy  or was it annoyance?

‘There’s still a chance to do more good than harm here. And I’m a policeman. I believe in what I do. Until I have evidence to the contrary.’

Tapani also tries to answer the question for himself:

To keep writing was to keep living. And I didn’t keep writing or living to find readers. People were trying to survive from one day to the next, and poetry didn’t have much to do with it. My reasons for writing were entirely selfish … Writing gave my days a shape, a routine … Writing meant that the fragile thread between yesterday, today and tomorrow remained unbroken.

The writing in the novel itself is clear and crisp. Descriptions of apocalyptic landscapes are vivid and convincing and the characters come alive from the page. But it is the juxtaposition of the rather gallant existentialism of the protagonists with the self-preservation and venality of most of the other characters that adds depth and texture to raise this dystopian crime novel well out of the ordinary.

(The Healer has won Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Glass Key Best Scandinavian Crime Novel 2012.)

Antti Tuomainen The Healer, Harvill Secker, 2013, PB, 256pp, $29.95

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