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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Cruel is the Night

Karo Hämäläinen

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To purchase Cruel is the Night

Title: Cruel is the Night
Author: Karo Hämäläinen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 313 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: Cruel is the Night - US
Cruel is the Night - UK
Cruel is the Night - Canada
Cruel is the Night - India
I crudeli omicidi di una notte d'estate - Italia
  • Finnish title: Ilta on julma
  • Translated by Owen Witesman

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Our Assessment:

B- : some fun with the set-up, but gets pretty silly in its resolution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 6/2/2017 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) darkly humorous, carefully crafted Finnish take on the classic British locked-room mystery. (...) Hämäläinen is at ease with using the four distinct character voices to shift the apparent power balance constantly over the course of the evening, providing both thrilling surprises and the dread of inevitability, all in the context of some truly delightful dinner dialogue." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Cruel is the Night begins with a Prologue, a scene of barely a page, printed in italics. A simple scene, of several cellphones incessantly ringing -- and the reveal that no one in the apartment where they are ringing is there to answer them -- "No one alive".
       So this seems to be where the story is heading: carnage in an apartment (the safe assumption being that this is a glimpse into the future, which the rest of the novel will lead to -- yes, the most tired, worn-out, over-used opening gambit in all of mystery writing, and yet writers just won't stop doing it ...).
       The story proper then begins. Chapters alternate quickly between the four main characters: investigative journalist Mikko and his wife Veera who have come to London, where they are going to have dinner and stay with his old school friend Robert and Robert's young wife, Elise. Each narrates from their perspective in a constant back and forth, a nice variety of commentary as things -- and, eventually, catastrophe -- unfold.
       In addition, additional short chapters are interspersed between the four characters' accounts; again in italics -- and so also again peeks ahead --, these describe one of the characters, clearly fleeing the scene, after the fact, across Europe -- though without revealing what carnage has been left behind. It's long left unsaid exactly what the left-behind scene involved -- and the rest of the story is only slowly getting there -- but given the lengths this character is going to to distance himself from it the safe guess is: not anything good. The survivor is identified as male, so we know it's one of the men who made it out, but that's more or less the extent of it.
       Murder is in the air from the start: Mikko has come, complete with a pouch of strychnine that's good for a couple of doses (you can never be too sure ...), intending to kill his old friend. As to his possible motive, that long remains unclear; certainly upright Mikko has issues with successful banker Robert's ill- (or at least morally very dubiously) gotten gains, so there's that tension from the start of their reunion. But, as the evening proceeds, other possible motives also come to the fore .....
       Robert was a deputy director and board member at "the second largest financial institution in Europe", but had to take the fall for the bank's involvement in the LIBOR rate manipulation scandal. A non-compete clause has him on ice for a while, but he can expect to get a cushy position once that's over; his position in the .01% seems to continue to be assured. For now, Robert is biding his time in comfort in one of the luxury apartments in London's infamous skyscraper, The Shard (yes, there are ten apartments in this atrocity -- and that's a story, too ...)
       If Mikko and Robert have strong ideological differences, so too Mikko and Veera have very different personalities. As Veera notes: "Mikko weighs and deliberates, I get fed up and handle things". Mikko is also incredibly cheap, trying to minimize expenditures at every turn (ridiculously and annoyingly so). It's unclear why this marriage works, but Veera does profess her continued deep affection for her husband -- and Mikko ... well, Mikko finds: "Our love wasn't burning, and I thought that was good. Our relationship was practical".
       As to Robert and his young wife ... well, she's young, so that's something. She also turns out to be surprisingly well-educated, and seems to have had a promising career, but she mostly comes across as pretty ditzy, and a touch touched ..... Of course, those marks on her body -- presumably Robert's work -- suggest other things as well .....
       Cruel is the Night is described as a 'locked-room mystery' but, although most of the action does take place in Robert's apartment, it hardly is. Two of the characters even leave and (briefly) take a room in the hotel that's also housed in the Shard before returning, while much of the time there is a fifth physical presence, awkwardly only called the servant; she eventually leaves, too (though her future does not look rosy, either ...). There's also rather a lot of back and forth on the telephone, as Mikko is concerned about what his and Veera's teenage daughter is up to (as he should be, though that's only an incidental diversion).
       Robert believes:

The purpose of this evening was both an interim settling of accounts and a new beginning.
       As to what accounts need settling -- well, there is that story of what happened to Robert's old girlfriend (and good friend of Veera's), when they were all just starting out. It takes a while until the full extent of that debacle is revealed, but, yes, it seems they carry a bit of guilt about something pretty bad with them ..... There's also that sexual tension between Robert and Veera, as well as, in another twist, the fact that Mikko and Elise have met before -- not that they're letting on .....
       Mikko's packet of strychnine isn't the only Chekhovian gun in the room (this being England/Europe, the presence of an actual gun is, of course, much less plausible; in an American thriller/household, there would probably be a dozen lying around ...). No, from the fancy -- and sharp -- sword Robert uses to open the champagne with to his store of cyanide pills (just in case ...), deadly implements and substances are conveniently lying around all over (as Hämäläinen is also at great, oft-repeated pains to emphasize -- you can almost feel him pointing to them).
       A lot of alcohol is consumed: "I'd like to point out that over the course of the evening I had consumed alcohol in abundance and was seriously intoxicated", one of the characters notes (albeit in explaining why he didn't kill one of the others at that point ...), while another -- now in full killing-mode -- eventually admits: "Sober I would never have thought of killing Rob". Indeed, while Robert complains about Agatha Christie novels as: "just endless tea drinking", Cruel is the Night is eventually so awash in alcohol that everything gets a bit blurry and the excuses come way too easy. It's a bit anticlimactic that, when the carnage finally starts, running through the mind of one of those involved is the observation: "I didn't know why I was killing him".
       The characters range from slightly to ridiculously cartoonish -- Mikko's penny-pinching deliberations, in particular, are spectacularly silly -- but in the quick back and forth of perspectives Hämäläinen does juggle the story decently along for stretches. Most of the surprises, especially about the past, aren't that surprising, but there's enough going on -- and that in the over-the-top luxury environment of the Shard and Robert's lifestyle -- and enough suspense about where it might be going, for a while. The booze-haze might make some of what happens (along the way, and in the end -- and also in the past ...) more plausible, but it's also a rather frustrating fictional device. And unfortunately the resolution is, in its silliness, rather disappointing -- more alcoholic bumbling than real evil. The pay-off of the italicized man-on-the-run chapters from along the way does suggest one final comedy-of-errors twist in the end, but overall they remain a largely awkward fit for the rest of the story.
       Like the very beginning of the novel -- why would the phones be ringing for so long ? why wouldn't the caller give up and just leave a message, especially considering the late hour ? -- too much of Cruel is the Night seems too obviously conceived for purposes of the story and little else. (Who shows off their cyanide pill -- and then essentially leaves it lying around ?) There would have been potential for Hämäläinen to go all-in on the comedy -- but he doesn't quite, making for a story that seems to have a lot of potential but realizes far too little of it. And, while juggling four voices is certainly challenging, the writing is often awkward-sounding -- in part no doubt because Hämäläinen tries so hard to make each of the four sound distinctive. Here, too, the alcohol doesn't help either .....
       For all its build-up and teases, Cruel is the Night falls pretty flat.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 February 2018

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Cruel is the Night: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish jouranlist and author Karo Hämäläinen was born in 1976.

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© 2018 the complete review

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