Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell from Sweden, Arnaldur Indridason from Iceland and Anne Holt from Norway—by now you know that crime fiction is one of Scandinavia’s hottest exports. The latest name to add to the list is Jarkko Sipilä from Finland. His books, “Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance” and “Helsinki Homicide: Nothing but the Truth” have received great reviews on Sipilä’s hard-boiled cop stories feature sardonic humor and suspense, of course, as well as an insight into Finnish society as he continuously tackles current topics. Nordstjernan met with Jarkko and his brother Jouko Sipilä, head of Ice Cold Crime, LLC in Minneapolis—a new publishing house that promotes Finnish fiction in the U.S.—when the two visited New York City.

“This trip is a bit of a vacation for me,” Jarkko explained. “But I’m also in New York to promote my books, and of course to see my brother.”
Jarkko Sipilä started out as a crime reporter for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading newspaper. His stint there was prompted by a leave of absence of Harri Nykanen, another reporter who is also a crime writer. When Nykanen returned, Sipilä stayed, and they became colleagues.
“Harri would ask me every morning ‘Have you started writing your novel yet?’ and after a while I thought ‘Well, if he can do it, maybe I can too.’”
Eventually Sipilä left the newspaper for a more lucrative job covering crime for Finnish television, but he kept in touch with Nykanen and the two began writing radio plays together—something Sipilä considers his fiction training.
“You learn a lot about dialogue working for radio,” he says, “because you must rely solely on dialogue to push the story forward.”
Sipilä wrote his first novel in 1994, but none of the four major Finnish publishing houses wanted to have anything to do with it. It wasn’t until 1996 that it was picked up by a smaller publisher, and his career as a novelist got rolling.
The transition from journalism to fiction didn’t seem too difficult, but Sipilä understood he had to use his experience with crime in a different way.
“The main problem is reality is such that a lot of mindless crimes are committed, and you can’t use mindless crimes in fiction. It doesn’t work. When you write a novel you have to have a motive, a motive good enough for the reader to accept. In a way, crimes in fiction must be smarter than crimes in real life.”
Though of course several tidbits and details from “real life” do seep into his texts, especially in the dialogue among cops, which comes across as taut and realistic. I ask what his writing process is like.
“Well, I first pick a theme, like political murder, witness protection, terrorism or revenge. And then I ask myself, is the crime going to be committed in the beginning or the middle or the end? This phase takes me a couple of months, and then I write out the synopsis from one to 30, in bullets. The actual writing of a book takes about two months. I still have my day job covering crime for Finnish TV, so I write in the evenings and at night at the kitchen table, but sometimes also in hotel rooms, cafés, ice rinks on trains … I need at least an hour in order to accomplish something. Sometimes I write every day, sometimes two weeks pass by without me writing anything at all. The real work, however, begins with the editing. But since I have a journalistic background, I don’t hold my texts sacred. I have no fear of cutting out stuff I initially thought was very clever.”
His brother Jouko Sipilä, a former banker, founded Ice Cold Crime LLC in 2006, in order to push Finnish crime fiction forward. He views the success of Stieg Larsson as an enormous help opening the doors for other Scandinavian authors.
“It’s very hard for foreign writers to enter the U.S. or British market, so Stieg Larsson has helped a lot. And Liza Marklund and all the others. E-books have been great also. Kindle, for instance, has been our biggest sales access. We just submitted some books to Apple, but they are still reviewing them.”
Curiously, Jarkko Sipilä doesn’t read much crime fiction himself. When I ask what he thinks about Larsson, he just shrugs.
“I read mainly biographies and war stories. I get enough crime from work and my own writing. But I suppose the crime authors I do like are John Grisham and Ed McBain.”
For the U.S. market, Sipilä has had to change some things in his texts. The Finnish names, brutal to anyone not from the country, have been made easier, and a cast of characters helps the reader keeping track of who is who.
At the moment, Sipilä is editing a new book with revenge as the theme. It starts with a house burning down, and the proposed title is “Behind Closed Doors”.
“I tried to work on it a bit on the plane over here,” he says. “But I didn’t do much.”
The book will be published in Finland in late spring, just in time for the long, light summers when holidaying Finns are looking forward to hours and hours of exciting reading.
“The perfect time for a book to appear,” Sipilä concludes.