Review: The Healer, By Antti Tuomainen

Harvill Secker, £12.99

"Which was worse – complete certainty that the worst had happened, or this fear, building up moment by moment? Sudden collapse, or slow, crumbling disintegration?" Helsinki is almost submerged under torrential rain, and Finnish society is in an advanced state of decay. Food supplies are almost non-existent, with brutal gangs ruling the streets and social services barely functioning. Worst of all, perhaps, is the threat of diseases, including tuberculosis, ebola and malaria. A nagging obbligato to this breakdown is the never-ending downpour.

Reading this prize-winning third novel by Antti Tuomainen in a sodden Britain makes The Healer seem edgily prescient, but the book belongs to a long line of disaster novels that includes titles by John Christopher and JG Ballard. Tuomainen's book is set in the near future, but nothing here is less than frighteningly plausible.

But if all this suggests a science-fiction piece, that's not quite the whole story. The Healer won the Scandinavian Glass Key crime-fiction prize and, against the vivid picture of climate catastrophe, is still a compelling crime novel.Struggling poet Tapani Lehtinen has decided to continue to live in Helsinki, even as the city crumbles. But his wife Joanna (a journalist) disappears, and he begins a desperate search for her. Everything points to the story she was working on, her search for a serial killer with a political agenda known as The Healer.

It's no accident that Antti Tuomainen's protagonist is a poet. As rendered in this sensitive translation from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, the book's language is as important as the tension generated by the narrative. While Ballard is evoked, the book is a polar opposite to the British author's vision of the slow collapse of society in the face of implacable nature. Here, the hunt for a missing woman by an increasingly distraught hero moves at the same allegro tempo as the vivid Armageddon. A crime novel, yes - but it's the surefooted rendition of rain-washed urban decay that will stay in the mind of most readers.