Anttti Tuomainen’s latest novel to appear in English is something of a departure for the ‘king of Helsinki Noir’. The Man Who Died is the uproariously funny story of small-town mushroom entrepreneur Jaakko Kaunismaa, who is shocked to learn he is being slowly poisoned – and that his wife is the prime suspect. What follows is both a page-turning thriller and a compelling black comedy about love, death and betrayal. He tells me about the switch in tone, and what else he’s been working on.

MR: This is all rather different from your previous books, which have been described as combining poetry and raw terror. Did it take your publishers, translators and existing readers by surprise?

AT: I think so. I was also very nervous about it. Even though all my books are standalones and, I would say, vastly different from one another, the five earlier books were all dark, moody and noirish, and after doing five of those I decided I had to do something different. I’ve always loved comedies, but I didn’t use that aspect before. I told my agent this is what I wanted to do, and he said, “Go for it, we’ll see what happens.” My publisher in Finland was more like, “Hmmm, interesting…” But I have been very fortunate; it’s been my most well-received and popular book in Finland, and it seems to be the same here so far. I’m relieved, because as we know, humour doesn’t always travel well, it is sometimes very tied to a specific culture.

But as long as it’s authentic it usually works – and this is a very Finnish comedy.

I’m happy to hear you say that. We tend to have a very dark sense of humour, a dry, very laconic way of saying things. Even the title – The Man Who Died is a direct translation – if you say it in Finland, it implies the beginning of a joke.

I spent my childhood summers in Hamina, a very picturesque place back then, and in my mind it’s still this golden seaside town.”

So how did the various elements of the story come together? When did you know you’d have a mushroom entrepreneur who has been fatally poisoned at the centre?

In the beginning I was writing about a man in the same kind of a predicament, but he was working in an ad agency. Now, I worked in an ad agency for twelve years before becoming a full-time writer, and contrary to what you see on television or read in books, life in an ad agency is not super-exciting and partying and sexy, cool and hip 24 hours a day, it’s work like anything else. And writing about that was boring for me, so why would it interest anyone else? The story was in the wrong place too. I was writing about a guy in an ad agency in Helsinki, and Helsinki is either a big small town or a small big city, but it’s a city, and that was one of the difficulties. I realised I loved the idea of the story, I loved the main character, but he has to be someone else, somewhere else, doing something else. And one day, walking to the place where I write, all of a sudden in my mind, I had: mushrooms. I think it came from an article I read maybe a year before, a speculative article about a mushroom in the Finnish forests that nobody picks because it’s a mushroom we don’t eat, but if you were to take that mushroom at the blooming stage and were able to transport it to Tokyo, it would be worth a lot of money. And from that I made up this entire mushroom business, the factory and the whole export side of things. So once I’d found that profession for him, then there was the question of location. I’ve lived in Helsinki all my life, but I spent my childhood summers in a small town called Hamina to the east, on the coast, a very picturesque place back then. It’s since suffered like most old industrial towns all over the world, all the paper mills have closed and they had a port that’s also closed down, so there’s no work and people have moved away. But back then it was a very lively summer town, and in my mind it’s still this golden seaside town, and I thought it would be perfect.

‘Welcome to Hamina’ montage. Niera/Wikimedia Commons

How long was it since you’d been to Hamina?

Probably about thirty years. I did go back for a couple of days just to experience it, but it was not the same so I decided to make it my childhood version of Hamina. And that all came together by writing. That’s usually what happens to me – I have to start writing in order to find what I need.

Your following book Palm Beach Finland (published in Finnish in September 2017) is in a similarly offbeat vein. Does this mark a permanent switch to dark comedy thrillers?

The honest answer is, I don’t know. As I said, all my books have been very different; I’ve written a dystopia, a very dark book, The Healer, I’ve written about the mining industry in The Mine and Dark As My Heart is a very traditional mystery noir novel, but what I now find very liberating is that I can just let go. I remember a few years ago I was writing another book and in the middle of writing a scene I realised that if I were to change the perspective a bit, I could make it outrageously funny in a very dark way, but it didn’t fit that story. And jumping to now, I feel I can take individual scenes in any direction I want because it fits. It can be either very dark or very light, and still within that crime fiction and dark comedy arena. It’s very liberating.

We all have goals and dreams, and sometimes they can drive us in the right direction, but they can also be a burden, and make us do things that are not smart.”

I spotted a hint of Palm Beach Finland in this book, where Jaakko says, “These small coves are like miniature versions of the paradise beaches in faraway countries” – although they’re presumably rather chillier than most paradise beaches. Is that what it’s about; someone setting up a resort in Finland that is perhaps not appropriate to the climate?

Exactly, but he thinks it’s perfect because it has all the comforts of a southern, heavenly paradise spot, but without the heat – which is troubling for Finns used to a cooler climate. Whenever there’s a five-day heat wave in Finland – which sometimes happens – it’s very uncomfortable. So this is like the beach paradise for people who want everything from their summer vacation but the heat. Of course it’s a dark comedy, so it’s exaggerated in all ways. But it’s really a book about dreams. We all have goals and dreams, and sometimes they can drive us in the right direction, but they can also be a burden, and make us do things that are not smart. So it’s a book about dreams and it’s a dark comedy and obviously a crime story, but it is broadly speaking in the same genre as The Man Who Died – whatever that really is.

Is Palm Beach Finland currently being translated?

As we speak, I would think, because it’s due to be published in October next year. It’s David Hackston again, who did a wonderful job with The Man Who Died. It’s so much due to him that the book is funny for English-speaking readers. Finnish is a very nuanced language and you have to get the nuance right, the tone and the mood is a very subtle, delicate thing and I think David gets it completely.

Your earlier books were translated by Lola Rogers. In what ways did the translation process differ this time?

Lola did a wonderful job too. She let me comment more on the translation, but one of the reasons I didn’t comment so much on the translation this time was because we were on a very hectic schedule. Sometimes that happens. But I was so happy when I got the first draft. When I read the first ten pages I said, “This is fine, this is absolutely fine.”

There’s lots of extreme weather in the book – especially heavy rain.

Well we have extreme weather in Finland, and it really gets into my books. It’s important for me when I start writing to know what is the season, what is the month. Because for a Finnish reader a sense of the environment and the weather and the mood of the day is really a huge part of the experience.

So how does Finland’s climate affect the national psyche?

Well they say it gets dark during the dark months, which I think sums it up. It’s dark in all ways. It’s really noticeable that the whole mood of the people and the country lifts when we get to spring and the days start getting longer, and then in the middle of summer there’s daylight for about 21 hours. Helsinki in January and Helsinki in July are like two different cities and the people are different.

Finland marked its 100th anniversary of independence in 2017. How has the country been celebrating and how is it projecting itself internationally?

I don’t think there’s anyone in Finland who doesn’t know it’s 100 years since independence, it’s a big deal. As for internationally, there’s always been Finns doing all kinds of stuff all over the world, but I think in the last maybe five or ten years things have really started changing. There’s Dome Karukoski who’s just now directing a Hollywood film about Tolkien, and there are writers, composers, conductors and all kinds of people doing things internationally, and I’m happy to see it’s becoming like something we do, going out in the world.

Two Finnish writers we recently featured on Bookanista are Iraqi-born Hassan Blasim and Pajtim Statovci, who is originally from Kosovo. In what ways have such voices, and immigrant cultures generally, come to the fore in the country?

That’s also changed in the last five, ten years just remarkably. Pajtim is making a real impression internationally now, writing great books and going all over the world. I think it’s bringing some welcome new blood into Finnish literature and the Finnish literary scene. It’s becoming more like a natural thing, the world opening up in both directions, and I think it’s been wonderful.

Tove Jansson is still Finland’s foremost literary export. Did you grow up reading her books?

Naturally we had the books, they are probably in every Finnish home, but I was not a big Moomin child. Obviously the Moomins were very big when I was growing up, but they were a bit scary for me, a bit dark. Maybe I was a very sensitive child… But I do like Tove Jansson’s short stories. There’s a lot of good stuff.

When I read Céline I thought, ‘Wow, you can do this, you can do anything!’ That was a turning point, because it showed me you just have to follow your heart.”

Who do you count among your main literary influences?

Journey_to_the_End_of_the_NightIt’s quite a mix. One of the books that really made me a writer was Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. In 1994 I was living with friends in Berlin. I was very young, I had no money and I was writing my first book, which was not very good, but it was a very exciting time. I found Céline’s book and I just devoured it. I don’t know what I would think of that novel now, but then I thought, “Wow, you can do this, you can do anything!” It’s a mad book, it’s brilliant and it’s genius, but it’s mad, it’s got so much stuff in it and the language is crazy. I started reading it in the evening, and I read all night. That was a turning point, because it showed me you just have to follow your heart, your instinct, and write the kind of stories that you want to write. And very soon after that I found American noir writers, obviously the greats like Chandler and Hammett and Cain, Willeford, Thompson, all those guys. And also Elmore Leonard, who was a fantastic writer and completely invented his own style. It’s been imitated a billion times, but nobody can do it. But then my first literary love is poetry. There’s some really wonderful poetry in Finland. We have a very, very strong tradition and the Finnish language really lives with what these writers do. So that’s the mixture: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Elmore Leonard, Finnish poetry. Obviously I try to do my own thing, but those were probably the major influences.

And which other Finnish writers do you particularly recommend?

One writer who’s been widely translated is Sofi Oksanen, and I like her stuff. And there’s a really great slim, short novel by Aki Ollikainen called White Hunger, I highly recommend that.

I’m pleased to see that The Man Who Died has been optioned for film. What’s the latest on that, and also on the planned adaptation of Dark As My Heart?

We have hopes they will shoot Dark As My Heart in the summer. I’ve read I think version two of the script and it’s good, and there is hope they will shoot if not the upcoming summer then definitely the next one. They already have the director in place, they’re just trying to gather all the pieces – because it seems that making films is not that simple. You can sit down and write a book by yourself, but when it comes to films there’s about a hundred people running around, and trying to get them all to agree on everything is complicated. As for The Man Who Died I think they’re very close to naming the screenwriter. I’ve heard some names, all good ones, who can recognise the tone and, for the lack of a better word, the genre. It just has to be that certain kind of funny, so I hope one of those screenwriters that I’ve heard mentioned will do it.

Fargo is mentioned in the blurb for The Man Who Died. Was it an influence?

I was probably halfway through the book when my agent said, “It sounds a bit like Fargo,” and I said, “You’re right, it’s got a bit of that,” and I watched the film again because I hadn’t seen it for something like fifteen years. In a dark comedy you look at things from a slightly different angle. There is something to this life that is very tragic and very sad but also very funny. One of the nice things I heard when I was in America, a woman who’d read the book said she’d been thinking about Fargo too, and for her it was more like if the Coen brothers went to Finland and shot a film there. So even if Fargo wasn’t a conscious influence, I think the comparison helps describe the kind of story it is.

Do you have another book underway?

I’m writing another book right now, it’s called Little Siberia, and it got its start the same way all my books have. I got a picture in my mind of a drunken ex-rally driver driving alone very fast on a snowy road somewhere in Finland, and I was like, “What is this?” That’s how books get their first impulse. The push for any of my stories has been that I get a picture in my mind and then I start writing to try and describe it – first to myself of course – and then somehow there’s a character there, and it just starts evolving. It’s very early days. I like to start with the characters and put them in a situation where they have to act, and now I’ve got three good ones I think, and all three I’ve got moving now, or wanting something, so it’s shaping up.


Antti_Tuomainen_290Antti Tuomainen (born 1971) was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author with A Killer I Wish. The critically acclaimed My Brother’s Keeper was published two years later. In 2011 Tuomainen’s third novel, The Healer, was awarded the Clue Award for Best Finnish Crime Novel and was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award. In 2013 the Finnish press crowned Tuomainen the ‘king of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as my Heart was published. His latest novels The Mine and The Man Who Died, both translated by David Hackston, are published by Orenda Books.
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Author portrait © Ville Juurikkala

David Hackston is a British translator of Finnish and Swedish literature and drama. He graduated from University College London in 1999 with a degree in Scandinavian Studies and now lives in Helsinki. Other notable recent publications include the Anna Fekete trilogy by Kati Hiekkapelto, Katja Kettu’s The Midwife, Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia and Maria Peura’s At the Edge of Light.. He is also a regular contributor to Books from Finland, and a member of the Finnish-English Literary Translation Cooperative. In 2007 was awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translation.

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.