Times/Sunday Times Crime Club
June star pick: Welcome return for doughty 1950s Finnish cop Hella Mauzer, such a misfit in the male-dominated police force where we first met her in Evil Things, that she’s been fired and is trying to make her way as a private detective. Roped in by her old boss to investigate a case he doesn’t care about — the death of a prostitute — she finds herself on another excursion into the dark heart of Cold War Finland.
Even though Hella Mauzer has “high cheekbones, huge eyes, and lovely legs”, the Finnish police force has seen fit to dispense with her services: an unfortunate incident with a gun, described in her debut (Evil Things, 2019), has reduced her to being a private investigator on the mean streets of Helsinki in 1953.
Some sicko is drowning working girls in the harbour—just one example of the misogyny rampant at the time. Hella, impulsive and intuitive, is a fascinating character who, on learning that her ex-lover is one of several suspects, determines to identify the killer. The misdirection and manipulation of the evidence is worthy of Agatha Christie, but the quirky humour is Katja Ivar’s own.
Ultimately, though, it is her portrait of Helsinki—“a city of lost souls”—that is most impressive. Not sure about that kalakukko (fish bread) though.
Deep as Death is the second in Katja Ivar’s very original series featuring the stubborn and somewhat reckless detective Hella Mauzer, who operates in 1950s Helsinki.
Sacked by the police, she’s now working, without great enthusiasm, as a private investigator. A murder case comes her way and it’s seemingly a scrap tossed from the table of a former colleague who doesn’t want to waste official time on the murder of a mere prostitute.
He’ll let that infuriating Mauzer woman wrestle with it but he’s not going to like where Hella’s investigation leads. Ivar’s creation continues to be one of the most unusual, and unusually interesting, characters around.
CrimeReads: ‘Deep as Death’ among 6 International Crime Books you should read this June
Katja Ivar is truly international—she grew up in the United States and Russia, then traveled across the world before settling in Paris, her home base for writing chilling psychological thrillers that hold their own against any Scandi noir. In Deep as Death, a former cop who’s turned to private investigation after being fired from the force investigates the murder of a high-end call girl who’s last client dropped her off at the bottom of Helsinki harbor. Set in 1953, Deep as Death takes us into the high point of conservatism and the behind-the-scenes libertinage that repression engenders.
Law Society of Scotland Journal
This is the second outing for former Finnish police officer and current private detective Hella Mauzer. Set in Helsinki in the Cold War era of 1953, the body of a prostitute turns up in a harbour. The police do not treat the death with any priority, but when a second girl is injured the madam turns to Hella for assistance.
Police Inspector Mustonen is within an ace of replacing his boss, the head of the homicide squad, Jokela, but has to play by his rules, rules which are corrupt and with which Mustonen has difficulty. Jokela needs him to conspire to protect the son of a high ranking politician who has consorted with the prostitutes and is slowly regarded as a suspect. Mustonen’s wife is a social climber and puts him under intolerable domestic pressure.
The deaths mount up and the pressure on both Hella and Mustonen for their own distinct purposes reaches boiling point. The book ends up with an utterly unexpected and superb climax. The characters are well-drawn and the setting in a chilly, wintry Helsinki is utterly authentic. It also reflects the social mores of the time and no doubt what are now called the “old police ways”. Enjoy!
There are plenty of surprises in Deep As Death the second novel to feature the independent Finnish detective Hella Mauzer. The least significant is that back in 1953 and before Elvis Presley had appeared the Finns were listening to a form of American music they called rock and roll. This sounds suspicious but as author Katja Iva also remembers the great Les Paul and Mary Ford she can be given the benefit of the doubt. More important are the compelling twists and turns in the plot of Deep As Death. Author Iva likes to indulge in suspending answers to important questions. Sometimes we have to wait for a few sentences. On other occasions, the reply comes a paragraph later. It all adds to the tension.
The surprises, though, that have impact in the novel are not related to specific clues or details but the characters. Each of them refuses to be what we expect. Author Katja Iva not only reveals the hidden identity of the chap who is drowning prostitutes in the sea and lakes of Helsinki, she challenges the assumptions we make about him and everyone else. If this is a truth that the hero Hella Mauzer is obliged to face, she will have company that will include more than a few readers.
Deep As Death has almost 70 chapters, 300 pages and two separate narrators. Two narrators will be an irritant for some readers because our brains can be slow to slip between identities. In Deep As Death the technique is justified. Initially, it looks like a device for ensuring that the plot will dovetail two random crimes but by the time the book is finished we realise that the ambition of Katja Ivar is much more serious. It all goes back to the characters and their secrets, their hidden potential and doubts. Thanks to the short chapters and direct storytelling Deep As Death rattles along. Even in an age of reduced attention span Deep As Death qualifies as a genuine page-turner.
The hero Hella Mauzer is an independent female spirit but Deep As Death is not an unforgiving feminist tract. The sympathy for men may be mixed but the key female characters are far from idealised and that includes hero Mauzer. She can, though, be relied upon to challenge authority. Mauzer refuses to flatter male egos, which is why she operates as a private eye in Helsinki. In the previous novel, Evil Things by Katja Ivar the same hero battled bosses in the cold empty provinces. This time Mauzer roams the snow-lined urban streets of the capital. Wherever she is there is conflict and, as Mauzer realises, sometimes she makes impulsive mistakes. Mauzer is not a female version of Philip Marlowe, an aloof hero operating above the abyss. Like everyone else, Mauzer has to live with compromises. What she finds most difficult is, of course, understanding the people around her. To say more would reveal too much of the plot. The best way to find out what really happened one night in Helsinki in 1953 is to read the book and flick through those 70 chapters.
The second Hella Mauzer thriller.
“What Hella doesn’t realise, until it’s too late, is that the most dangerous of lies are those we tell ourselves.”
That little teaser for Deep as Death comes from an interview I did with Katja on the publication of her debut, Evil Things, (January last year, see the link). Now I’ve read the new book I understand exactly what she was hinting at, this deadly mystery gets very personal for Hella Mauzer.
Evil Things was an impressive and exciting first novel. Set in Lapland in 1952 it plumbed the depths of the Cold War and it was obvious that detective creation Hella Mauzer would be one to follow. In that novel, Hella had recently moved to Ivalo in Lapland from Helsinki, where she had been the first woman in the homicide squad. Hella was the only Ivalo detective who cared about the disappearance of Erno, a Skolt Sami from a small village, Käärmela. Following her instincts leads to some very dark secrets. As winter closes in and the region will soon be cut off by the weather, Hella has to head north for answers but the real danger is not the snow it’s very human.
Often the second novel is more telling than the first, just so here. The impressive debut augured well but Deep as Death shows that Ivar to be an inventive storyteller with ideas in her armoury and her psychological portrait of Hella Mauzer is both subtle and fascinating. Hella has something of Ivar’s grandmother about her, she became a doctor in a man’s world:
“She never doubted that she could be as good as any man…”
Hella is intelligent and strong, although that is tempered by the kind of blindness we all have to problems in our personal lives, she is highly competent, also a bit stubborn. I might have been tempted to call her as a rebel but as I read Deep as Death I realised that it’s not so much that as the fact that ‘she is who she is’, it’s in her DNA to be herself regardless. Hella is a woman who doesn’t consider that she is any less valuable or useful as a detective than any of the men. In fact she’s better for not carrying some of the prejudices they have, and that’s particularly important in this investigation of the death of a prostitute. Hella won’t be bound by patriarchal norms; ‘be a good housewife’, ‘speak when spoken to’, ‘this is no job for a woman’. She’s not a pioneer because she’s fighting a cause, she a pioneer because she’s a natural detective, it’s her. The misogyny of the age is a reflection on society’s failings which her personal driving force is in conflict with. The setting, both the local colour and character and this deeper pervading sexism and patriarchal tradition are perfectly realised.
To course, plenty of very good women writers are creating superb female leads but the combination of background, period, location and extraordinary dynamic character arc makes Hella special. At the opening of Evil Things Hella is already leaving the capital city’s homicide squad, by the opening of Deep as Death she’s lost her job as a police officer in Ivalo and is back in Helsinki operating as a private eye, (developments that might take several novels in another writer’s hands happen between two books here). Possibly partly attributable to the fact that Evil Things was originally written as a stand-alone, however, it came about it’s exhilarating.
Prologue 1935. ‘whore’. A terrified woman makes a dash across a frozen lake knowing how dangerous it is but her pursuer shouts after her:
“You’re dead, Lara.”
She deserted the boy, she’s not thinking straight, she hopes the ice will hold…
February 1953, Helsinki. Hella’s in trouble again, being sued in civil court by a man she injured while a police officer in Ivalo. It was self-defence, this trial is a farce, she was doing her duty. The judge is only capable of seeing a woman who was in a man’s room late at night at a logging camp in Lapland, essentially implying Hella was asking for it, ‘What did she expect?’ The judge awards the man damages.
Hella left the Ivalo police, for ‘insubordination’ read trying to do some real police work. Now she’s back in Helsinki, and if losing her job and the judgment going against her weren’t bad enough, long term lover Steve just left her after four years. Hella has set up as a private detective, she’s in desperate need of money when madame Klara Nyland turns up, and one of her girls is dead. Chief inspector Jokela is amusing himself by passing the case on to Hella, homicide can’t be bothered the death of a prostitute. The body of Nellie Ritvanen washed up in the harbour, Nyland doesn’t think it was an accident. She asks Hella to find the killer, for which she’ll pay. Turns out Nellie was three months pregnant and there are other findings from the autopsy the police are ignoring:
“…he said he’d look into it. But let’s face it, Hella. That guy is building a career. Investigating a prostitute’s death, it’s a lot of hassle for very little reward.”
Hella finds Anita, the police receptionist from Ivalo, on her doorstep, come to live with her for a few months. Suddenly inspector Mustonen takes a keen interest in Hella’s case. Things are about to get very nasty investigating the case.
If anything Deep as Death impressed me more than Evil Things, it’s dark, moody and chilling; I can’t wait for more…
And just when this old and embittered hack thought there could be nothing new coming out of the frozen northlands, I discover the adventures of Hella Mauzer, a splendid creation by Finnish author Katja Ivar. Deep As Death, from Bitter Lemon Press, really is very, very good. The setting is Finland in 1953, a cold winter during a Cold War, and call-girls are ending up in Helsinki (‘a city for walking fast’) harbour. It ends up as a case for Hella Mauzer, a former cop turned private eye whose struggles against patronising, institutional sexism form a vital plot strand.
Mauzer is an engaging protagonist, the 1950’s setting and characters totally convincing and Katja Ivar, I think, writes in English and does so wonderfully.
NY Journal of Books
“a tangled web of history that slowly unravels as an ambitious chief inspector and a down-and-out private investigator, once colleagues, work against each other to discover the twisted reasoning behind the killer’s crimes.”
As the first female polissyster on the Helsinki police force, Hella Mauzer’s actions brought her to her superiors’ attention, and she was told “if you don’t learn to rein in your temper, you will end up being thrown out of the police.” Hella did them one better. She left the Helsinki PD to become a private detective, if a slightly impecunious one. At the moment, she’s trying to figure out how to get one hundred thousand marrkka to pay the fine levied by a judge in an assault case. She’s also just lost her live-in boyfriend, Steve Collins “the American DJ.” And she’s involuntarily gotten a new roommate—Anita, former police receptionist, now police officer, who comes “to visit” and stays.
Hella tells herself she’ll get over Steve. Eventually. She’ll find a new case and get the money for the fine. But Anita’s presence is an inconvenience and an intrusion though she can’t bring herself to tell the girl so. She gets a new client soon enough—a high-end madam wanting to find out who killed one of her girls. “‘She drowned", the woman said, matter-of-factly. "She went down on the ice in West Harbour. The ice gave way and the police seem to think it was an accident.’”
Klara Nylund believes Nellie was murdered. “‘I want you to find who did this to her and I want that person to pay for what he did.’” So Hella has a client, sent to her by Chief Inspector Jokela, her old boss at the Helsinki Homicide Squad.
At headquarters, Chief Inspector Erik Mustonen of the Homicide Squad is working the same case and is surprised to learn Jokela referred Klara to Hella. “I raised my glass reluctantly. I didn’t expect to lose control of the investigation but I knew Mauzer, the way she operated. Maybe it was for the best.” Things immediately become more complicated when an influential businessman’s son is involved in an auto accident and his “date” accuses him of tying her up with the intent of throwing her into a frozen lake. It isn’t the first time Ahti Virtanen has been in trouble but this time, Mustonen’s told to hush-up the case.
Mustonen is ambitious. He’s in line for a promotion. He also has a judgmental father-in-law and wife wanting to continue living in the style in which her parents raised her. “I recommend you keep Ahti home for a while. Make sure there are no other unfortunate accidents. It could draw unwanted attention to what happened yesterday. Are we clear?”
When Klara Nylund is also killed, Hella, feeling she failed the woman, is determined to find her murderer as well as Nellie’s. Getting possession of Klara’s “business” notebook, she finds coded entries of all her clients and narrows the suspects to one. Unfortunately, she knows that person very well. Steve Collins.
Now Hella must make a choice. Continue with her investigation and possibly prove the man she still loves is a cold-blooded killer or abandon the case altogether. The discovery of a similar death 18 years before only confuses the issue, and then Hella discovers Ahti Virtanen’s involvement. Were Steve and Ahti together in committing the crimes? Is Steve the “Harbour Killer” or is he being framed? With Anita’s unwelcomed help, Hella struggles to solve the case before another death happens, discovering a police coverup involving some very important officials.
Then Anita disappears. Steve is arrested. And Hella discovers the truth. While a homicide detective, Hella Mauzer was considered too independent and headstrong. On her own, she’s still a problem for the HPD, though now she has other problems weighing in. In this novel, more space is given to both Hella’s backstory and private life, as well as Mustonen’s, and how those elements influence their current situations.
The fact that the story is told from the first-person point of view of the two main characters, may confuse some readers if they don’t keep a close watch on the clarifying chapter headings. Warning: Be alert.
Deep as Death reveals a tangled web of history that slowly unravels as an ambitious chief inspector and a down-and-out private investigator, once colleagues, work against each other to discover the twisted reasoning behind the killer’s crimes. In the end, the revelation of the killer’s identity will be enough of a shock to send the reader re-checking chapters and asking how she could’ve missed certain significant passages, at the same time proving Katja Ivar has written a novel in which “the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves.” The climax of the case suggests the way is left open for a future Hella Mauzer casefile—and if that happens, it would be a welcome addition to this series.