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Reviews for Behind God's Back by Harri Nykanen
‘In Nykänen's intricately plotted second Ariel Kafka novel to be published in English (after 2012's Nights of Awe), the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit cop looks into the shooting murder of Jewish businessman Samuel Jacobson, whose daughter he once dated. Jacobson's widow reveals that her husband recently engineered a major loan through Kafka & Oxbaum, a law firm owned by Kafka's brother, Eli, and a second cousin of theirs, Max Oxbaum. Kafka already knows that Eli and Max brokered their clients' loans from an Estonian company, Baltic Invest, which is owned by Israeli businessman Benjamin Hararin, a front man for Amos Jakov, who's believed to have links to the Russian mafia. Family ties and the tight-knit dealings within Finland's small Jewish community complicate the investigation, but the sympathetic Kafka manages to perform a delicate balancing act on his way to an unexpected resolution of the crime.' - Publishers Weekly
‘There are two Jewish cops in all of Helsinki. One of them, Ariel Kafka, a lieutenant in the Violent Crime Unit, identifies himself as a policeman first, then a Finn, and lastly a Jew. Murky circumstances surround his investigation of a Jewish businessman's murder. Neo-Nazi violence, intergenerational intrigue, shady loans – predictable lines of investigation lead to unpredictable culprits. But a second killing strikes closer to home, and the Finnish Security Police soon come knocking. Behind God's Back is the second of Nykänen's novels featuring lieutenant Ariel Kafka (great name) to be published in English, following 2012's Nights of Awe. It's a very procedural police procedural, in that Kafka goes from person to person asking questions, discovering something new each time. Fortunately the novel's length (just under 200 pages) prevents this from becoming tedious, and the fact that, once all the pieces are in place, the mystery is actually pretty complex means that the end brings a satisfying payoff. Much is made of Kafka's Jewishness, and exploring these themes alongside more traditional noir elements is a first in my experience. It's an interesting take, and works well. It all plays out before a backdrop of a chilly Finnish autumn, making for a very pleasant read.' - Killing Time
‘Led by the likes of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, Nordic crime fiction is on something of a roll at the moment and this time the offering comes from Finland. Behind God's Back is the second novel in Harri Nykänen's Ariel Kafka series, following on from the success of the detective's first outing with Nights of Awe back in 2012. Ariel Kafka is a Jewish lieutenant in Helsinki's Violent Crime Unit. Although a non-observant Jew himself, his upbringing in Helsinki's close-knit Jewish community makes him an obvious choice to lead an investigation into the murder of one of that community's most prominent citizens. At first, his enquiries lead him to suspect anti-Semitic motives especially when another Jewish citizen is murdered but once these are discounted, Kafka finds himself embroiled in the complexities of shady loan deals, sightings of known hit men, threats to Israeli dignitaries and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. Unlike the plot of this highly engaging novel, Nykänen's Kafka is a rather uncomplicated character - a mild-mannered middle-aged bachelor with no particular axe to grind when it comes to women. While many of his literary counterparts across the globe are usually hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hard-hearted cops with a dark and painful past, Kafka emerges as endearing to readers simply because he happens to be good at his job. Throw into the mix, an eminently readable translation by Kristian London, and we have here a very welcome addition to the genre of Nordic noir.' - Booktrust
‘In Helsinki, someone murders Jewish office supplies stores owner Samuel Jacobson in front of his home in Tammisalo. Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit Chief Detective Huovinen assigns Detective Ariel Kafka to investigate the homicide because his subordinate and the victim are Jewish. Ariel knew Samuel as the cop dated the victim's daughter Lea when they were eighteen, but conceals that from his superior officer. As he and Detective Simolin go to the crime scene, Ariel knows Lea lives in Israel. Neighbors inform the culprit was a cop. They next question the widow Ethel who mentions her son Roni is in Lapland. The cops also learn from her that her workaholic husband stayed home for three days in spite of not being ill; and that he obtained a loan from Baltic Invest Estonian bank through the law firm of Kafka & Oxbaum; owned by Ariel's brother Eli and their second cousin Max. As the inquiry internationally widens to include Israel's Mossad and the Russian Mafia, a second similar murder occurs; thus the Finnish Security Police become involved. The second Case for Ariel Kafka of Helsinki's Violent Crimes Unit (see Nights of Awe) is a fabulous Finnish police procedural. The lead protagonist may not be a practicing Jew, but feels strongly about keeping his race and Israel safe. The multifaceted investigation follows subgenre standard operating procedures but also contains red herrings and twists. However, it is the close look into Finland's small Jewish community, still distrustful of authorities even by those generations born decades after the Holocaust, that make for a complex terrific whodunit.' - Midwest Book Review
‘Nykanen's tidy style is reminiscent of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels...One charm of the novel is the sense of Finnish innocence and orderliness…another is the reserve of Nykanen's Helsinki cops, who are able yet unmarked by the dirty business that foreigners bring to their patch.' - Booklist
‘A Helsinki businessman apparently murdered by the most awkward suspect possible launches Detective Ariel Kafka, of the Violent Crimes Unit, on his second case (Nights of Awe, 2012). Helsinki's Jewish community is small enough that everyone knows everyone else. Its community of police officers is even smaller. So you'd think that Kafka, a member of both of these exclusive sets, would know the uniformed cop who gunned down office-supply-chain owner Samuel Jacobson just outside his swanky home. For better or worse, though, evidence soon points away from the police to an imposter, presumably someone hired by Leo Meir, of Cemicon Ltd., who's been under 24-hour surveillance ever since he came to town, reportedly to arrange "a high-profile assassination." So Kafka's left to make inquiries among Jacobson's circles, who correspond roughly to Kafka's own friends and relatives. Kafka used to date Jacobson's daughter Lea. His brother Eli is a corporate attorney deeply involved in Jacobson's affairs. So is Eli's law partner, Max Oxbaum, who's Kafka's second cousin. The few suspects who aren't related to Kafka directly all have close ties to Israel, from Benjamin Haranin, the suspected money launderer who owns Baltic Invest, to Amos Jakov, long suspected of being his silent partner, to Haim Levi, the exchange student who spent a term living with the Jacobsons years before being named Israel's Minister of Justice. Now Kafka, whom the dead man long since dismissed as son-in-law material, wonders if he can rise to the occasion by avenging Jacobson's death. Perhaps the oddest Scandinavian mystery to have crossed the ocean yet, a mixture of Jo Nesbø's portraits of Nordic political corruption with Jerome Charyn's waggish Borscht Belt tales of Isaac Sidel, the Pink Commish of New York.' - Kirkus
‘With the second in a mystery series featuring Ariel Kafka, a police inspector from Finland, this author has made sure to put a great amount of suspense and intrigue into a very small package. Kafka is a Jewish man and a lieutenant in the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit who is now investigating the murder of a Jewish businessman, Samuel Jacobson. The victim's widow has told the police that her husband had recently had some dealings on a major loan that went through Kafka & Oxbaum, a law firm owned by Kafka's brother, Eli. Kafka already knows that his brother had negotiated client loans with an Estonian Company, Baltic Invest, owned by a front man for Amos Jakov—a man who has dealings with the Russian Mafia. Being Jewish and being from a close family, Ariel finds the investigation a bit difficult to handle as he tries to keep his private life balanced while following the case. Ariel is dealing with international intrigue and a great amount of corruption which is hard for a man who is very dedicated to the badge of a policeman. He is so dedicated to his job, in fact, that he is willing to put his life on the line for it. As the investigation heats up, he finds some very interesting things in the mix. For instance: Neo-Nazi violence, and some pretty shady loans that lead him to some extremely odd culprits. Just when he feels as if he has a grasp on things, another killing occurs and the Security Police come in on the case. Soon it is unveiled that the Mossad from Israel also have their fingers in the proverbial pie, and Ariel has to deal with yet another, even bigger intelligence organization. Difficult to read, as most translations are, but this plot is one that the diehard mystery fan will find to be a good story worth reading.' - Suspense Magazine
‘The comedian, Tommy Cooper, many years ago, told a story about his visit to a Chinese restaurant. Inevitably, there was confusion. Cooper was a curious chap and he asked the waiter if there were any Chinese Jews. The waiter reminded Tommy that the restaurant was not in China. They had apple and lemon juice but no Chinese juice. Today comedians would refuse that joke. And a non-Jewish author would avoid the searchlight that Harri Nykänen focuses on his Jewish community in Helsinki. Behind God's Back is the second novel to feature Jewish and Finnish cop, Ariel Kafka. Calling a policeman Kafka will appeal to some but in a novel that is always believable and realistic the literary nod is surprising if easily forgiven. The modern thriller is different from the detective story of the classic genre. Back then the detective and reader had to wade through characters all tainted by a motive for murder. Today the job of the detective is to first find someone with a motive, someone and something to resist inexplicable death and sacrifice. In Behind God's Back, the initial enquiries of Kafka produce little, neither evidence nor motive. Like the reader, Kafka is obliged to imagine what might have happened. Behind God's Back differs from modern overheated Scandinavian noir. It echoes the measured crime fiction of Swedish pioneers, Mia Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Detective Ariel Kafka also has a pleasant resemblance to the great reassuring Maigret. Kafka is a problem solver and not a two fisted adventurer. He understands human failing but his enquiries invite explanation rather than dig deeply into perversion and secret dirt. Kafka knows that investigation and conclusion depend on the accounts of others even if their telling is partial. Neglect those partial accounts, and the investigator will sacrifice perspective. His approach means we have a sensible and an honest view of the Jewish community of Helsinki. Much does happen behind the back of God but this is a consequence of human failing rather than the contrived evil villainy that we witness in the efficient but overheated novels of Scandinavian writers, Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo. People need to earn a living, and that is always dangerous. Business and crime require deceit and betrayal. Distortion prevails and it impacts both victims and victimisers. An impartial Maigret type figure is essential. When a romance from the past returns to Finland, the reader can be forgiven for fearing romantic melodrama but Nykänen ensures that Kafka is true to himself. The detective remains aloof. Kafka is neither an outsider nor a willing participant. Instead, we have a man obliged to communicate and to understand. The connection with Israel affects all but it defines manners and conversation rather than character. It influences schemes and design but it is not a corrupt root. This is plausible, and such realism ensures a rewarding read. The characters have weaknesses, and some suffer and some do not. The surprise is not that this happens but how it does and to whom.' - Crime Chronicles
‘Ariel Kafka, as the only Jewish detective in Helsinki's violent crime unit, has special insight into the Jewish Community. It goes without saying but it also provides Ari with a steady flow of cases. Therefore when a local company director and Jewish congregation member is murdered, Ariel is first choice of investigator. Unfortunately the victim happens to be the man who could have become Ariel's father-in-law a couple of decades before but Ari feels enough removed by time not to disqualify himself from the case. Gradually as the web of clues is carefully teased out, more worrying connections are discovered. The Mossad may be involved but then so may Ari's brother Eli. Crime-reporter-turned-author Harri Nykanen brings his very human detective out for a second airing after the debut Nights of Awe and once again I'm smitten. When a detective noir is told in the first person it's important to be able to engage with the narrator and Ari is a very engaging chap. Ariel wins our sympathy by not seeming to belong fully anywhere. He has the respect of his police colleagues but his Judaism sets him apart slightly. On the other hand, although a member of the local Jewish community and synagogue attender on high days and holy days, he ploughs his own furrow where religion is concerned. Indeed in Harri's last novel Ari's brother Eli was pressuring him to find a nice Jewish girl to marry. This time Harri's pen wreaks a little revenge as Ari discovers what sort of community pillar Eli actually is. That's the thing about Mr Nykanen; he can produce fascinating stuff like this in a succinct, absorbing volume and we haven't even taken a look at the murder yet! By the way, the novel works as a stand-alone but you'll miss out on the excellent debut novel if you read it in isolation. Harri, with the able assistance of highly talented translator Kristian London where the English is concerned, proves he can both reason and twist a crime novel beautifully. The knowledge he gleaned as crime reporter salts the story with little gems as much as he seasons it with his dry, subtle sense of humour. (Watch out for the comment about needing the proverbial dog walking witness and subsequent occurrence.) Also we're given an opportunity to learn more of Ariel's past and understand him as a rounded person when his job brings him in touch with one ex-girlfriend that his brother actually approved of back in their youth. If I have a moan it comes as a request to all book jacket synopsis writers: please, please don't tell us so much. Not knowing about the Mossad angle would have provided another twist and, as for the second murder… Why tell us before we start reading? It happens over half way through so again it would be an exciting surprise just at the point we believe things are calming down. (In fact I feel guilty telling you there's a second murder, even though the book blurb got there first.) Ok, rant over. After the rant comes a request for a favour. (Didn't think that through properly, did I?) At the time of going to press, publishers Bitter Lemon has no current plans to translate any of the other existing Ariel Kafka mysteries. Understandably – but sadly - in today's financial climate they want to see how this sells first. So perhaps if we all looked in their direction and smiled nicely…? Or failing that, if enough people succumb to the urge to a copy of the book... I know it's radical but it just may work!‘ - Book Bag
‘A businessman gets shot on his doorstep in Helsinki one morning, and this apparently simple homicide lights up a web of connections and corruption that leads all the way to Israel. Ariel Kafka, of Helsinki's violent crime unit, leads the investigation despite his conflicting position in the Finnish Jewish community. Not only does he know everybody, but he also shagged the dead guy's daughter a while back. This is Nordic crime fiction at its understated end – there's none of the gory violence you'll find elsewhere in the genre. Nykänen is more interested in picking at the intersections of politics, religion and business, and how the lines of power all lead back to the same place. The pace is swift, and Helsinki makes for a beautiful backdrop, but there is a little too much reliance on the characters talking the plot to each other in perfunctory fashion. Kristian London's translation captures Nykänen's subtle humour well – in response to his brother saying ‘what a boring funeral,' Kafka thinks, ‘Eli was right though. I had attended funerals that were more fun.' The book is at its best like this: looking askance at the idioms and machinations of the genre.' - The Skinny
‘Behind God's Back features Inspector Ariel Kafka, a Finnish bachelor, a Jew, who's just beginning to think that perhaps devotion to his job and the neglect of his personal life may have caused him to miss some opportunities. Kafka is an intriguing main character, a man we want to spend time with. He doesn't have a drinking problem, he's not a train wreck, but he does have the saving grace of possessing a lively, quirky sense of humour. Not that there's much humour to be found in the crime under investigation–the assassination style shooting of a prominent Jewish businessman who made the mistake of opening his own front door to the killer. When the novel opens, Finnish police are involved in Operation Jaffa aka Operation Haemorrhoid–renamed for the hours spent “without a break on the hard-edged, unpadded kitchen chair” watching a suspect through a telescope. This case, which purportedly involves a high-profile assassination, sprang from monitoring a group called Seeds of Hate who targeted a handful of “prominent Jews” for hate mail. The organization is also responsible for the kidnapping and beating of a professor, so the threats must be taken seriously. With a cast of nicely-drawn secondary characters (including a couple of nosy neighbours who keep a handy pair of binoculars close by,) Kafka works his way through the crime and makes the uncomfortable discovery that his much more successful brother, corporate lawyer, Eli is also involved in some shenanigans. As this police procedural unfolds, Behind God's Back, is mostly a leisurely read–although as often is the case with police procedurals, the plot tends to pile in on itself as the solution nears. The plot does not rely on tension, violence or gore, but instead the emphasis is on Kafka's dogged pursuit of the truth–no matter where that journey takes him. Kafka's bachelorhood and relationships with his colleagues are all tinged with humour. Kafka has an interesting voice, and he's a character who blends well with his quirky colleagues. The term crime fiction covers a vast range of subjects and cannot fit into some one-size-fits-all description. This series should appeal to fans of international crime, Nordic crime, or police procedurals that are light on violence but emphasize affection for returning characters. ‘ - Swiftly Tilting Planet
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