Jan Costin Wagner may very well be THE discovery of this year’s German Literature Month for me. I started The Winter of the Lions, book three in the series, in October and since then I’ve already read Silence, book two, have started book one, Ice Moon, and ordered the remaining two novels. Book five just came out in German. Now you certainly wonder why I’ve started the series backwards. There’s a reason, although, now that I’m reading book one I know, I shouldn’t have worried. I knew that Detective Kimmo Joentaa loses his wife in book one. I thought that a large part of the book would focus on her illness, but she dies in the first two pages and the book is about grief and loss, not about illness. The death of Joentaa’s wife, which is a recurring theme in every book, underlines that each novel is, at its core, a meditation on death.
It’s interesting that reading the series backwards makes me much more aware of how much Joentaa is changing. And it’s precisely this change which makes the series such a great read. Joentaa is not only likable but complex and sensitive, a truly appealing character. I’m also pleasantly surprised about how different each book is, although there are many similarities. In the first, Ice Moon, most chapters are written from Joentaa’s point of view, a few from the murderer’s perspective. In book two, Silence, we have a whole chorus of voices. Joentaa’s is only one of many. In The Winter of the Lions, Wagner uses a similar approach as in Ice Moon. Most chapters are written from Joentaa’s point of view, only a few from the point of view of the murderer.
What makes this series so outstanding is the choice of themes. While the detective has to find the murderer the books are much more an exploration of the reasons why someone was killed than simple “whodunits”. Only in finding the reason for a murder, does Joentaa find the killer.
The careful uncovering of the reason behind a series of murders is even more important in The Winter of the Lions than in the first two books. While book one focuses on the meaning of death, book two is a study of guilt, and book three looks into the way we treat other people’s tragedies.
The Winter of the Lion starts on Christmas Eve. Joentaa has been a widower for two years and has come to terms with his loneliness. He even looks forward to spend Christmas on his own. While he’s still at the police station, a young woman wants to report a rape. She’s a prostitute and pretends one of her customer’s has raped her. When Joentaa begins to ask questions, she withdraws. She doesn’t want to go into details.
Surprisingly, the same woman rings Joentaa’s door bell a little while later, when he’s back home. She spends the night with him and they begin a very unusual relationship.
The strange woman isn’t the only one to disturb Joentaa’s quiet Christmas. One of his colleague’s, the police pathologist, is found stabbed in a snowy wood. A little while later a puppeteer is killed and a famous talk show host is attacked.
All of the victims of the perpetrator in The Winter of the Lions took part in a talk show, in which victims of accidents, fires, and murder were the topic of the discussion.
One of the many questions the book asks is: When does one person’s tragedy become another person’s entertainment? I would love to write in more details about the topics in the book but I would spoil it.
What made me love Wagner’s books even more was his writing style. This is crime at the literary end of the spectrum. The sentences are short, spare, and very precise.
As if all of this wasn’t enough there’s a haunting atmosphere in every book and the Finnish setting is another bonus, especially since each book takes place during another season. I loved to read about the long nights in winter and the endless days in summer.
Should you wonder why a German author chose to set his books in Finland —Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends half of the year in Finland.
This is one of the best crime series I know. Haunting, atmospherical, with philosophical depth and impeccable writing.
31 thoughts on “Jan Costin Wagner: Im Winter der Löwen (2008) – The Winter of the Lions (2011) – Kimmo Joentaa Series 3”
The books are a find for me too. I have Ice Moon and the one above here waiting, and I’ve been taking a look at the first few pages. There’s a fourth in English I haven’t got yet. Anyway thanks for pointing me towards the series in the first place.
I’m glad you like them as well. I’ve seen tem in book shops but every time I read the blurb of Ice Moon I thought it was a novel about illness and very dark and depressing. It’s sad but not depressing. I think combining his loss and musings on death with a crime story are a really great idea. Yes, four have been translated. He’s written standalone novels too. They have not been translated though.
I’m curous to find out which of the three you like best.
I’m really eager to get back to the series…
I thought Silence was excellent but I like the others even more because Joentaa’s such a great character.
This does sound like an interesting and well thought-through series, especially considering each book focuses on a different aspect: the meaning of death, guilt, how we treat others’ tragedies. I recall Guy’s review of Silence and his comparison of the book and film. Good find!
It’s a great find. I think it offers a lot. I hope you’ll try him some time.
Wonderful review, Caroline. It is great to know that your discovered a wonderful new crime writer and we discovered it through you. I love the fact that each of the volumes in the series is set in a different season and explores a different theme. I wonder how summer in Finland must be like – I always imagined that summer will also be cold there.
Thanks, Vishy. He is wonderful. I hope you read hime some time. I’m pretty sure you’d like him. Did you know my step-mother is from Finland? She says it’s lovely in summer and warm. And she even found the winters felt less cold because the cold is very dry in spite of the fact that it’s much colder temperature -wise. She didn’t like the darkness though. It’s hard when days are barely 4 hours long. He captures a lot of that. It’s really fantastic.
I remember you telling me that your step-mother is from Finland, Caroline. Nice to know that Finnish summers are warm and winters are dry and don’t feel that cold. The four hour winter days must be very hard though. But people must be treasuring every minute of those winter days. Now after reading your description of it, I want to visit Finland 🙂
I haven’t been there either and would love to visit. I thought she’d move back but she decided to stay in Switzerland after all.
I think what must be very lovely are the many lakes in Finland. Joentaa’s house looks out on a lake. 🙂
I bought Ice Moon after reading Guy’s review of Silence. I see I made a good choice.
It’s interesting to read your thoughts about reading the series backward.
Maybe I’ll have time to read it this month too.
Yes, I’m glad I finally picked him up. Ice Moon is stunning. The way he combines Joentaa’s loss with the murders is very special. You’ll see. 🙂
This sounds like a very thoughtful series and different from the usual crime novel schtick. I like the idea of setting the books in different seasons: in Finland there is a big contrast in the seasons, unlike where I live. I will have to check him out and see if my library has his novels. I’m glad you’re enjoying them so much.
I think he’s fantastic. All too often it seems as if people who read crime novels forget that they could actually provide a means to explore death. Death is just the pretext to write a book. Here it’s a topic.
I’d recommend to start with Ice Moon, if you can find it.
I wouldn’t be able to live in a country that has such dark winters. And the cold. Brrr.
You know, it’s peculiar, but I read more than half of this novel several years ago. For some reason, at that time, I was only reading at night before bed, and due to my heavy teaching schedule then, I was half dead on those reading evenings. I would read and remember nothing the next day. I gave up, thinking originally that the fault was with the novel.
I now have time to read a bit at other times of day, and I realize I have always done this book a disservice. I think I should try again. Which novel of his do you recommend I begin with?
I loved The Winter of the Lions. Especially since it’s set before Christmas and that works so well right now but Ice Moon is deeper. It’s an exploration of death, dying, loss, grief.
He’s a very literarary writer, not fast paced, so I can understand that it wouldn’t work when you’re very tired.
Maybe you should try THe Winter of the Lions and go backwards, like I did. 🙂
This sounds like something I’d really like. Kudos for reading them out of order…I simply can’t do it. 🙂
I never thought I’d get hooked. I thought I’d read one and that would be it.
I love his writing. I hope you’ll like it as much as I do. It’s not your everyday crime novel. Let me know what you think if you pick him up.
This does sound like a compelling book.
Crime fiction is often at its is best when it is literary. It opens up certain literary opportunities.
Reading the last book of a series and then going back, though not something that I would likely do, does have advantages, as you have pointed out. Observing the evolution of a character the way that you are doing opens up new perspectives.
I didn’t mind reading it backwards. It’s a bit like in real life when you meet someone and only later discover his backstory.
It’s a very compelling book.
It does sound well done, though a lot of people are being killed. I guess you just have to accept that as a genre thing in crime fiction. In real life that many deaths, or the number of deaths in an average Morse or Wallander episode, would probably be international news (particularly given the frequently unusual nature of the murders and twisted motives), but it’s always one detective or some local squad without the national police immediately stepping in and taking over.
It’s most noticeable in The Bridge. I love that show, but murders on that scale would be global news, there’d be press everywhere and the cases would be the highest priority in both Denmark and Sweden. It wouldn’t all be left to a couple of detectives.
Thanks for reminding me of The Bridge. I wanted to watch that.
I think you’d like this. Wagner has a perference for serial killers as I’m just finding out while reading Ice Moon. And you’re right – it’s not as such realistic.
Maybe you’d prefer Silence.
Caroline, from your reviews I can clearly see that I have a serious gap in my reading list: I must try this Jan Costin Wagner, especially since I have a soft spot for Finland.
I think you’d like him because he’s isn’t your ususal crime writer. I find Ice Moon especially uncanny with all those meditations on death and dying. But Silence is excellent too. The Winter of the Lions is the most conventional so far.
I’m so interested to hear that you enjoyed this book. I believe it was two or three years ago that I tried to read this while I was teaching way too many courses. The only time I had to read was right before I fell asleep. Not surprisingly, I could not fathom what was going on, even though I read two-thirds of it on the Nook! I knew that something was amiss with me and my reading. So now, after reading your thoughts, I believe I’ll give the book another try. I’ll read it during the daytime when I get to it.
Some books only work when we have more time.
I’m looking forward to read about your second impressions. Maybe you should try this one first.
Okay, I am going home and going straight to my bookshelves and pulling his book off and going to begin reading! I can’t tell you how long I have had this book–I have the first one and so will start there. I only hope the English translation is as good as the original!
I’m lookin g foward to hear what you thnk of him. I just love this series. The first is the darkest because of his wife’s death but to juxtapose it with the murders was ingenious.
I think the translations should be good because his sentences are spare and short.
This sounds great! I’ve been looking for some winter-evening crime fiction lately (I get crime cravings every now and then), so this sounds like a pretty good choice! I’ll start with the first one, if they’re as addictive as it seems it might be worth reading them in order! 🙂
I hope you’ll like them. I think he’s quite literary, especially in the first two books.
I find Kimmo Joentaa a wonderful charcater. His pain in book one is so raw.
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