A local publisher and translator is bringing hard-boiled Finnish crime novels to the United States.
There might be a pipeline of pro hockey players from Finland to the United States, but mystery writers? Not so much. Jouko Sipila, himself from Finland and now living in Independence, Minn., is setting out to change that.
Riding the wave of recent popular Nordic crime novels -- beginning, but not ending, with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- Sipila, 39, has begun publishing English translations of crime novels written by his brother, Jarkko, a journalist in Helsinki. This fall, Sipila's publishing company, Ice Cold Crime, will begin publishing a second Finnish mystery writer.
The success of Stieg Larsson's "Girl" trilogy, and of books by fellow Swede Henning Mankell, "makes the pie bigger," Sipila said last week. "We hope to capture a small slice of it."
It's a wide-open field in the United States, he says, because Finnish publishers don't market their books to American readers. "Their interest is to sell the books in Finland," said Jarkko, 46, who was in the Cities visiting family.
Jarkko's hard-boiled cop stories are set in Helsinki and are laced with sardonic humor -- a style easily translatable to American audiences. His first book published by Ice Cold Crime was "Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall," winner of the 2009 Finnish Crime Fiction of the Year Award and one in a series of nine novels about Detective Lt. Kari Takamäki. (The English version of "Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance" was published in February.)
The translation into English was by Peter Ylitalo Leppa of Plymouth, who studied at the University of Minnesota, and who calls the humor "served cold" in a typical understated Finnish manner.
Leppa translated the books at what he called a "breakneck schedule" -- 300 pages in three months, paid for, in part, with a $5,000 grant from the Finnish Literature Exchange.
"Translation is unbelievably difficult work," said his former professor, Dan Karvonen. "It's kind of excruciating." Translating Finnish to English is particularly tricky, because the languages aren't related and have no similarities. The only Finnish word that English has borrowed, Karvonen said, is "sauna."
Ice Cold Crime's print runs are modest at 3,000 books per title. A few hundred are shipped to Finland for the tourist market, and the rest are sold primarily in Minnesota.
In the Twin Cities, that means places like Once Upon a Crime bookstore and the FinnStyle home furnishings retailer. Up on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, where many Finns settled to farm and work the mines, there's a ready audience. Joe Keyes, co-owner of Hibbing's Howard Street Booksellers, said he has customers who will devour anything Finnish.
Teased into writing
Jarkko had not set out to write mysteries. In the early 1990s he was hired by the Helsinki newspaper Sanomat to fill in for Harri Nykanen, a crime reporter and mystery writer who was going on leave. When Nykanen returned, Jarkko stayed on.
"Every day, he came to work and asked me, 'Have you started your own book yet?'" Jarkko recalled. "One day I decided maybe I should start it."
Jarkko has since moved from newspapers to television news, but he and Nykanen remain friends. And Ice Cold Crime's next book, due this fall, will be one by Nykanen.
Chris Steller is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.