The latest clutch of Scandinavian crime novels reminds us that the fictional detectives now apparently overrunning Helsinki, Stockholm and Gothenburg are no strangers to sex, violence and the excessive consumption of alcohol.
"Helsinki Blood" (Putnam, $26.95) the fourth of James Thompson's Inspector Kari Vaara books, provides a hero who is a mess -- "shot to pieces" and still recovering from a brain operation.
In short order, a brick and worse are being tossed through the window of his apartment, where Vaara holes up with his compatriot, an alcoholic nicknamed Sweetness, and a lovely young nurse named Mirjami. She's cousin to Milo, the third leg of an illicit Vaara-led group that stole 10 million euros from crooked politicians earlier in the series.
The trio stocks up on meat, eggs, beer and kossu, a potent Finnish drink that resembles vodka, and prepares revenge against tormentors who happen to be high-ranking policemen. An Estonian girl with Down syndrome must be rescued before she is forced into sex slavery. Assassinations are plotted in a sauna. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty does, much of it related to the three previous Vaara books by Thompson, an American married to a Finn and living in Helsinki for more than 15 years. It's mayhem with an appreciatively leering wit: Vaara takes down one thug by slamming him in the solar plexus with his cane, capped by a lion's mouth rimmed by razors.
"I think I just invented a poor man's liposuction," he says.
It's not a book for the fainthearted. Still, if you hanker for a gory trip into the Helsinki underworld -- and yearn for a taste of tar-infused salmon -- this tough, spare novel is worth the read.
"The Andalucian Friend" (Crown, $26), the debut from Sweden's Alexander Söderberg, is far more conventional, as you may gather from a handy front-of-the-book list that divides its mostly villainous cast into Swedes, Spaniards, Germans and Russians.
Sophie, our widowed single mother of a heroine, meets Hector after he's been hospitalized after a mysterious accident. The Spaniard has a past; he's the scion of a global crime family whose ruthlessness puts the Corleones to shame.
Before long, an investigator is after Sophie to spy on her new companion. Russian and German drug lords appear. A Swede makes his way to Europe from Paraguay on a tramp steamer stocked with guns and cocaine. An Ericsson AB executive will be blackmailed by his Iranian mistress.
The police prove to be, by turns, inept and alcoholic. A pair of detectives pregame an evening's mission with beer and shots of Jägermeister (and a bite of pork-chop pizza with béarnaise sauce).
As we know from the introduction, Sophie and Hector will be chased down a highway by gun-toting motorcyclists. Will things eventually be put right? They'd better: I suspect Sophie may reappear in Söderberg's next book.
From Stockholm, it's on to Gothenburg, Sweden's second-biggest city, where Chief Inspector Erik Winter makes his seventh appearance. "Room No. 10" (Simon & Schuster, $25.99) is the latest in a series by Åke Edwardson, a former journalist and university lecturer who has three times won his nation's award for best crime novel.
Brutality is kept to a minimum and, for a change, Winter and his colleagues are more interested in solving crimes than sabotaging office colleagues or ripping off ruffians.
Yes, Winter savors his whiskey. Yes, he's haunted by an unsolved crime from his past. But mostly he's just a cop trying to do his job (and thinking a lot about the weather -- this is Scandinavia, after all). No one so much as sips an aquavit until the book is a quarter done.
A young woman is found hanging dead, alone in the titular room No. 10 of a seedy downtown hotel. One hand is painted white. A sparsely punctuated note lurks nearby. Suicide? Not a chance.
Could it be related to the case of a missing woman two decades earlier that also involved a hand -- although that one was spotted sans corpse? It stands to reason, since she was last heard from checking into the same hotel room.
Midway through the book, people are finally starting to die and everyone's worried about the long unlit winter days ahead. We even learn a bit about Swedish cooking ("Good potatoes were rare in Swedish restaurants").
But I must confess, after Thompson's reckless savagery and Söderberg's world-hopping brutality, Edwardson's tome had me hungering for sustenance a bit less bland than boiled tubers.