Book Extracts
  • Nights of Awe by Harri Nykanen
  • Harri Nykanen |  Nights of Awe
Nights of Awe by Harri Nykanen


Men are born, they live, and they die. Few leave any permanent trace of their sojourn. For most, the only memory remains in the photo album gathering dust in the bookcase’s bottom cabinet. For some, it’s impossible to come up with any reason for their lives, even with a touch of goodwill.

Pehkonen belonged to this latter caste.

If I had been the contemplative type, I would have doubtless dedicated more time to pondering the meaning of his seemingly pointless existence. God alone knew where and why this gadfly had drifted around the earth in the period between his birth and his death, in other words approximately fifty years. I knew a piece here and a fragment there, but as a policeman I just wanted an answer to one question: who killed him?

The late Mr Pehkonen was lying in a recycling dumpster, yesterday’s news covering him like a quilt. The early autumn night had been cool, around forty degrees, and a blanket of newspapers was warmer than nothing.

On his head, the deceased wore a bizarre fake-fur hat that looked more like a waterlogged raccoon dog that had been flattened in rush-hour traffic than a piece of headgear. A dark-brown wool scarf had eroded into a rope-like rag around his grimy neck.

There was a deep contusion at his temple, and next to his head sprawled a square-sided cobblestone, a clunker that weighed at least ten pounds. The newspapers mounded into a pillow beneath his head had soaked up the blood that had drained from the wound. The combined odour of printing ink and urine wafted out from the dumpster. As a parting gesture, Pehkonen had done it in his pants.

When I saw the body, the first thing that came to mind was that next morning there would be a newspaper in that exact same paper container reporting about a man who had been found dead in a newspaper container.

Pehkonen’s death was as meaningless and insignificant as his life, unless you consider it an achievement to end up a one-column story buried in the inside pages of the national paper and a two-column story in the tabloids. I was sure that somewhere nearby that same day we’d find the guy, who, in a bout of drunken insanity or to assert ownership over a bottle of booze nursed by Pehkonen, had bashed the life out of his pal with a cobblestone. The investigation and the autopsy would be routine in the truest sense of the word. Cremation, an urn paid for by social services chucked into the ground, a couple of handfuls of dirt on top, end of story. What happened to Pehkonen after that was no longer the concern of a detective from the Helsinki police force’s Violent Crimes Unit.

The lieutenant on duty had called me about the body, which had been discovered by a paper deliverer, only because he knew I lived right next to where it had been found. The wake-up had come at four-thirty, and I hadn’t had time for my morning coffee yet, so I went back to my place. Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.

I was usually able to walk to work in peace, but this time I only made it as far as Fredrikinkatu before being stopped.

I don’t know where the Rabbi came from, but there he was, suddenly standing right in front of me.

“Shalom, Ariel!”

“Shalom, Rabbi Liebstein,” I responded. I took a step back, but Liebstein pursued.

I glanced around and understood that the Rabbi’s materialization hadn’t been a genuine miracle after all.

There was a van parked at the edge of the pavement: the congregation’s van, which I should have recognized and spotted before it was too late. Peering out from behind the van’s cargo windows was Roni Kordienski, the congregation’s combined super, handyman and driver. Liebstein and Kordienski had been carrying an old ornamental cabinet from the nearby antique shop out to the vehicle, and just at that moment my mobile phone had started to ring, causing my vigilance to flag.

“Nice cabinet.”

“The congregation received it as a donation.”

“Excuse me,” I said, raising my phone to my ear with an apologetic look.

“Detective Kafka.”

The caller was my immediate superior at Violent Crime, Chief Detective Huovinen.

“Bad time?”

I glanced into the Rabbi’s expectant eyes.

“Kind of.”

“We need you pretty fast.”

“What is it?”

“Two bodies at Linnunlaulu. One of them in the rail yard. Two tracks are closed, it’s holding up the trains. The deceased are most likely foreigners.”

“Anyone there yet?”

“Simolin headed out fifteen minutes ago… and a patrol-man has cordoned off the area. Forensics is probably already there by now, too.”

“I’m on it.”

“Call me when you’re en route and I’ll fill you in.”

You wouldn’t have taken Liebstein for a rabbi, not by how he dressed anyway. He was wearing a stylish black wool over-coat, a burgundy silk scarf knotted in an almost bohemian fashion, and gleaming black shoes. Still, at least a fellow Jew would peg him unmistakably for a Jew. He had the broad, furrowed brow of a thinker, and it was easy to imagine him, head tilted, reading the Torah at the synagogue or preaching on the Sabbath. The bridge of his ponderous eyeglasses had chafed tender red gouges into the sides of his nose. The aura of good-natured clumsiness he radiated was, however, an illusion, and I didn’t let it fool me. Liebstein dug his nails into his victims with the tenacity of a debt collector.

I didn’t have anything against him; he was an amiable and intelligent man. But right now I didn’t feel like talking, even amiably and intelligently.

“How are things going at the congregation?”

Good eyesight and quick reflexes had kept me out of the Rabbi’s path for over six months. Now some courteous re-solve was called for. Otherwise I knew that before I realized it, I’d have made half- or two-thirds promises that I had no intention of keeping.

“Ariel Isaac Kafka,” the Rabbi repeated, this time stressing each name. “If you dropped by the synagogue slightly more often to pray, you’d know how things are going there. Can you tell me why you delight me and the other members of the congregation so infrequently with your presence? I saw your uncle just yesterday and we discussed the matter.”

Liebstein spoke with an accent, the origin of which was difficult to pinpoint. And that was no wonder, if you knew his background. He was born in Germany, fled from there to Sweden to escape the Nazis, and then moved to Denmark in the 1950s.

“It’s the police work… I’m always busy. As a matter of fact,

I was just called to a crime scene. Two bodies.” The Rabbi nodded sympathetically.

“I understand, Ariel, don’t think that I don’t, even though I was born into a slower age. Everyone is busy these days. The whole world is like an enormous clock whose spring has been wound too tight. I’m afraid that before long its gears are going to start flying off.”

My phone rang again, this time in my pocket. I fiddled with it blindly and managed to silence it.

“And the mobile phone. It was meant to be a servant, but it has become the master. It has taken over everywhere, it orders and the servant obeys, he runs and runs until he’s out of breath and collapses to the ground…”

“It’s just that my work…”

The Rabbi raised his forefinger to his lips.

“I understand, I understand,” he continued. “You do important work. All of us in the congregation are proud of you. If only we had more frequent opportunities to tell you how proud.”

The Rabbi lowered a hand onto my shoulder. His touch felt heavy, almost disapproving, although the expression on his face remained gentle.

“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I told your aunt that, once again, you had solved a serious crime. We consider you a blessing to our congregation and to our small community, which has seen such hardship.”

Liebstein was exaggerating. The serious crime was an everyday assault that had led to manslaughter, and the perpetrator had been apprehended thanks to a surveillance-camera photo published in the tabloids, not me.

The Rabbi smiled and hoisted his rimless glasses farther up his nose. The chafed spots itched, and he rubbed them between his thumb and forefinger.

“Your aunt said that you wanted to be a policeman even before you had your bar mitzvah. Is that true?”

I shrugged. Even the Rabbi didn’t need to know every-thing.

He bent over towards me and whispered as if he were divulging a secret.

“I’ve always liked detective novels.” I instinctively furrowed my brows.

“You’re a police officer and Satan will ensure that your work will never end. Evil will always walk at your side. And that’s exactly why I’ve been waiting for you to pay us a visit, to reflect and withdraw even for a moment from all the blackness you encounter in your profession. The soul re-quires rest, otherwise a person becomes as frail as the ashes of burnt silk paper, and eventually crumbles into the tiniest motes of dust.”

“I’ll try to come… I’ll come as soon as I can.”

“We haven’t been able to put together a minyan for three days. Yesterday morning only two members showed up for synagogue.” I nodded.

You needed ten male congregants thirteen years or older for a minyan. Women were not accepted, but this was a topic I didn’t feel like delving into. I would have proposed the best and easiest solution to the problem: accept women into the minyan in Finland, as had already been done elsewhere.

I could sense my gaze wandering towards my destination and my feet taking surreptitious steps.

“Rabbi Liebstein,” Kordienski interrupted apologetically. “They’re waiting for you.”

The Rabbi didn’t respond, he just looked at me. My mobile began to ring again. Liebstein shook his head and smiled, albeit wanly.

“Have to go, busy busy busy… some day the spring will snap and all the little gears will ricochet off and people will go mad and start killing one another… Yamim Noraim. Remember Yom Kippur, Ariel…”

Liebstein was right: I had to remember. Being born a Jew brought along with it certain responsibilities other than refusing to eat pork. It was almost impossible to skip out on celebrating the Jewish New Year altogether. It began with ten days of repentance, the last of which, Yom Kippur, was the most important. It was then that the entire congregation prayed together and asked for forgiveness for all of their conceivable sins, starting from masturbating and malicious talk.

The Rabbi spread out his hands to illustrate all of the whirling, twirling gears, springs and wheels in the universe being hurled outwards into eternity, and then he followed Kordienski into the shop.

I gave a sigh of relief, and as I passed the van, I checked my reflection in the tinted side window. Short hair, slightly thinning at the crown, sideburns that reached halfway down my ears, a narrow, introverted face and a high, domed forehead.

I hiked up the collar of my brass-buttoned pea coat and took a few hurried steps to ensure my getaway before calling Huovinen.

“Where are you, Ari?”

“Downtown, on my way to Linnunlaulu.”

“By car?”

“No, but I’ll get there just as fast by tram.”

“You know that bridge that crosses the railway tracks?” I conceded that I did.

“You’ll find two very lifeless bodies there. Kind of an unusual case, you’ll see what I mean. One of them is in the rail yard beneath the bridge. Just kick things into gear and inform me as soon as something comes up. You can bet the media’s going to have a field day with this one… That bad timing: were you at one of your people’s celebrations where we pagans aren’t allowed?”

I told him I’d been investigating a corpse that had been found in a recycling dumpster.

“Someone else can take that. Shalom!” Huovinen said, ending the call.

I knew Huovinen so well that I found it impossible to be offended. We had graduated from the academy at the same time. Huovinen had been the best in the class, and I was only the fourth best, which had aroused a general sense of bewilderment among my relatives. Everyone remembered how my brother Eli had been number one in his class and had been accepted to study law on his first try and how my sister Hanna’s matriculation papers had been the best in the history of our school.

At that time, the burden that Einstein and Oppenheimer had left for less brilliant Jews like myself had weighed heavily on me.

The bridge was cordoned off with police tape, but the officers who were patrolling the site, radios crackling, recognized me and let me through.

I stopped in the middle of the span and gazed towards downtown.

Beyond the rock face, a maze of train tracks immediately began; it looked like a bunch of ladders had been toppled over in the same direction, stopping at the wall of stone and glass formed by the station and a few other buildings. Above the tracks ran a confusing jumble of electric wires; here and there you could see bright-red warning lights.

A large, ornamental pink wooden villa teetered perilously close to the edge of the high rock face.

A double-height express train approached from down-town; its roof swept past only a couple of yards beneath my feet. I could feel the bridge sway from the mass of the carriages.

On the other side of the bridge’s railing hung a six-foot-wide flange of corrugated metal. Yellow danger signs had been attached to it. I glanced over the edge of the railing and saw several uniformed policemen on the tracks. A tent had been erected over the rails, so that the tender morning sensibilities of the commuters on passing trains wouldn’t be offended by the sight of the body.

“Kaf… Ari!”

Detective Mika Simolin was approaching the crime scene from the direction of the Linnunlaulu villas.

“I went and had a look down below.”

Simolin was ten years younger than me. He had only been in Violent Crime for six months and still treated me with a respect that bordered on bashfulness.

“The shooting took place here,” Simolin said, indicating a bloodstain on the ground. “Afterwards the killer shoved the body down the slope and jumped or fell from the bridge onto the roof of a train and died instantaneously. I mean the presumed killer,” Simolin corrected himself.

The body lay on the slope that descended from the bridge, almost up against the steel mesh fence running above the rails. A green tarp had been draped from the fence to block the view. A CSI named Manner in white overalls was stand-ing next to the body.

“All right if I come over there yet?” I asked.

Manner glanced up.

“Be my guest.”

I climbed down with Simolin at my heels and positioned myself a little awkwardly next to the fence. The body was lying on its back, partially hidden in the tall grass. It took a second before I understood what had happened to it. The face was like a mutilated stump from some pagan sacrifice: its nose and ears had been sliced off, and what was left was covered in blood.

  • Harri NykanenNights of Awe