Hella – stubborn as hell: Trouble by Katja Ivar

Helsinki, June 1953. Too much summer light and too many dark secrets. Hella Mauzer, now a reluctant private investigator, has been asked by her former boss at the Helsinki murder squad to do a background check on a member of the Finnish secret services. Not the type of job Hella was hoping for, but she accepts it on the condition that she is given access to the files concerning the roadside death of her father in 1942, at a time when Finland joined forces with Nazi Germany in its attack against the Soviet Union. German troops were sent to Finland, the Gestapo arrived in Helsinki and German influence on local government was strong, including demands for the deportation of local Jews. Colonel Mauzer, his wife and other family members were killed by a truck in a hit and run incident. An accident, file closed, they said. But not for Hella, whose unwelcome investigation leads to some who would prefer to see her stopped dead in her tracks.

Katja Ivar’s latest novel can be read as a stand-alone but I would encourage you to check Evil Things and Deep as Death if you are not familiar with these earlier books. (I have just read my previous reviews and noted that I keep encouraging people to become Ivar’s fan!) Trouble has enough background information about Hella, little snippets of memories, reintroduction to several characters, and I’m confident this allows to form a complete picture of her. Yet, finding out more about events in Lapland and in the south of Finland that had led her to the current situation will make getting into the latest story much more exciting. In addition, her search for answers as why four members of her family have died in a hit-and-run accident.

If there were any professional and financial glass ceilings at the time, she would have definitely smashed them. Such concept didn’t exist then and what Hela wants to do, to carve independent life for herself, is considered as madness by society, in particular men as most of women appearing in the story don’t even have the voice to articulate this notion. 

Working as a private investigator brings constant practical, financial and psychological challenges. Hella doggedly pursues all possible connections to the man she agreed to check. The official opinion of Johannes Heikkinen him as a perfect citizen and a grieving widower, with a mad cousin disturbing the overall perception, changes when she links casual words, random comments and anonymous letters. Is there a murder lurking in his CV? Is there a point in uncovering truth of the secret agent’s past? At the same time she digs into the uncomfortable Finnish past and begins to understand how some Finns operated during the war, or how they had chosen to survive conflicting loyalties. Her personal life takes unprecedented turn which only reinforces the view of how modern and progressive she is in her attitudes and approach, without realising that she might be a trailblazer. This determination to find the truth and to deal with any obstacles thrown her way by the system and various men can be also exhausting yet personal integrity is so much more valuable than a bare existence. However, even if her independence infuriates people around her, I feel that she still manages to be respected by some, without being it shown of course, though there is excellent working relationship and real friendship with the pathologist Tom, and the complicated, often unsettling, connection with Steve.

Ivar creates an authentic world, full of detailed descriptions and observations about life in the 1950s in the country still scarred by the WWII and next to a menacing presence of its powerful neighbour as the Cold War. Trouble is a slick, cleverly plotted and captivating murder mystery. And I want the intelligent, intrepid (warm under her armour) Hella Mauzer to be my friend.

Huge thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC of this historical yet contemporary Nordic Noir gem. Paperback of Trouble by Katja Ivar is out on 19th January 2023.

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