Interview with Lauri Mäkinen

The author Lauri Mäkinen, known for his novels combining history and thriller-like qualities, answers HLA’s questions.

Your second novel 50/50 has been praised for its masterful combination of a whodunit, a war novel and historical fiction. Similar qualities apply to your debut Shrewd as Snakes, Innocent as Doves (2015) – a clever murder mystery that takes its reader to Southwest Africa in the 1920s and the missionary workers’ colourful everyday life. Where does the fascination with historical settings come from, and how did you end up combining it with murder mysteries?

History is a treasure trove of stories. I think history makes you see how we actually have no idea of what is going on right now. One day someone will be looking at this time and thinking: “What the hell were they thinking!” When you are reading about history, you are reading about people walking into disasters, but also out of them. That fascinates me. As for the crime or mystery part, I think I just thought why not give it a try and see if I could do it. I realised that writing mysteries is all about the art of deceiving the reader. It also turned out to be a lot of fun.

Such combinations of history and thriller clearly interest the audiences (great example of it is the reception of your novels in Finland, or the international success of such authors like Kjell Ola Dahl), but the genre hasn’t quite yet become as mainstream as, for instance, Nordic Noir. Was choosing this particular genre – for you personally – a conscious effort to be different in a crime fiction world overloaded with Nordic Noir type of books?

Nordic Noir has its charm, I guess, but it describes something that doesn’t really exist. The real-life Helsinki Police is actually shutting down its Homicide Squad, because there aren’t enough homicides for an entire squad. That’s obviously a good thing, and it tells you something. Nordic societies all in all are pretty safe and happy places. Staying alive is not a problem, but staying awake sometimes is. I’m not saying we’re living in an utopia, but to describe Norway or Sweden or Finland as places with cunning serial killers for an entire series of books is just silly to me. Maybe I’m a bore, but I just don’t see the point.

At the same time, I’ve always enjoyed novels written by schemers. I like the feeling of wanting to find out, or being surprised. I like novels that are rich and have interesting characters who see things like real people do, not only through reason or some nice & easy, universal-yet-private, motive. I also like to learn while reading, and have always been fascinated by history, politics and so on. So I guess from that perspective, what I’ve written corresponds with what I enjoy reading myself.

You are extremely talented in creating a very credible atmosphere in your novels.  For instance, in 50/50 the conditions and people’s incredible destinies during the Second World War feel very real and somehow, very recognizable – as if it was told about anyone’s family. Do you do a lot of actual historical research in order to create your characters? As I understand, at least 50/50 was partly based on a real-life story?

I think the challenge with writing fiction is to keep it credible when reality can be totally incredible. Maybe that’s why non-fiction sometimes makes better entertainment than fiction. I write fiction, but sometimes I get comments like ”you know, that stuff you wrote didn’t really happen”. I don’t know how to take it. Maybe it’s a compliment disguised as criticism?

But as a whole, 50/50 wasn’t based on a true story, although I did try to write it as though it could be. There are bits and pieces and parts of the story, that are based on or took some inspiration from real stories. For instance, I never met my great uncle, but I hear he was a bit of an adventurer back in the day. A drunk and a womaniser. He migrated to Canada and from there to the Soviet Union, managing to make his escape back to Finland during the WWII. He then made a career in placing detonation charges diving in underground tunnels. The guy needed his adrenalin, I guess. But he didn’t go to the camps as far as I know, so those stories come from research. Then there are myths and legends that are documented but not necessarily well known, like the Jewish surgeon in Kiestinki, who got awarded the Iron Cross but refused to accept it; or pacifist Arndt Pekurinen, whom the Finnish Army tried to force taking up arms and shot dead after his final refusal. 

Are you yourself an avid reader of crime literature? What do you think about nowaday’s crime fiction scene in Finland and abroad? 

I read a bit of everything. Novels, crime, non-fiction, academic stuff. I think the latest books that have truly impressed me have been close to crime, but not quite. There’s the Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, which I liked. I also read and liked Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura about the assassination of Lev Trotski. Out of Finnish ones I liked Arttu Tuominen’s Verivelka – The Blood Oath would be a direct translation. It had a good atmosphere to it, and I highly appreciated how he could make a good crime novel out of a very typical Finnish homicide; stabbing among drunks alienated from society. Nordic Noir, but not exactly. 

What are your plans for the near future? What can the readers expect?

I actually have another story in my family: it’s about another adventurer who was a sailor and disappeared in Spain at the time of the civil war. There are two versions of what happened to him: one says he drowned, and the other that he joined the International Brigades and got killed. So his story is one source of inspiration for my third novel, which will also take place in historical settings and begin at the time of the Spanish Civil War. This one won’t be a whodunit as the two previous ones were. It is more of a spy novel combining culture, politics, war and ideology. There are multiple narrators, from artists to spies, and from low-lives to top politicians. Location-wise it ranges from Spain to Finland and Nazi Germany, and from the Soviet Union to Japan. There are fictional characters, real-life inspired characters, as well as real characters, like Joseph Goebbels. So it’s been a handful to write, but I’m getting there.

After this one I’ve been thinking of doing something contemporary, probably looking at it from a broader perspective, maybe retaining some kind of a crime aspect, but from a different angle. I’ve been following this group called Bellingcat and the way they mine information from the internet. They’ve managed to bring to light people whose job is to hide. Maybe there’s something there that turns into a story, maybe not, let’s see.

Finally, a version of the famous Proust Questionnaire, used by the legendary French journalist Bernard Pivot at the end of every broadcast of his literary television talk show Apostrophes.

What is your favorite word?
It’s a Swedish word: genomtänkt. It means “thought through”.

What is your least favorite word?
Vahingonilo. Schadenfreude. We have it, the Germans have it.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Some interesting piece of information. A paradox. Something that is obviously false, yet widely believed.

What turns you off?
People on high horses.

What is your favorite curse word?
Perkele. Unrivalled. If you hear it being used, stand back.

What sound or noise do you love?
This is a cliché, but waves rolling to shore.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The final three whistles after a lost game.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
During the writing process of 50/50 I studied a bit of surgery and interviewed a military surgeon. Somehow, I found it fascinating. He was talking about blood vessels, bones, livers, stomachs, bowels, lungs and muscle tissue like they were parts of a car. Which, in a way, they are.

What profession would you not like to do?
Ikea-furniture assembly service guy. All praise to them.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“You did good anyway.”