Sunday, 6 August 2017

Adventures of a Kiwi crime writer at Dekkarit Festival 2017.

Varkaus is a picturesque little town roughly 300km north-east of where I live in Porvoo. It has a population of just over 20,000 people and has been built entirely around a huge and strangely beautiful paper mill of Gotham City type proportions. It is also the venue for Finland’s hippest up-and-coming crime fiction festival. It is a celebration of art, writing, true crime, music and all things mysterious. Dekkarit Festival, it has to be said, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of recent times for me.

I was invited to appear at this year’s event after one of my Finnish crime writing colleagues suggested me to the organisers. I accepted the invitation without hesitation and also without knowing too much about the festival. A little research into it led me to believe that it would be something of an interesting and varied event that would embrace many different aspects of the genre and that’s exactly what it was.

All too often crime writing festivals are nothing more than panel after panel of writers answering questions from a moderator and nothing else. While there is nothing wrong with listening to authors talk about their craft, after a while, it becomes a little dull. In my opinion anyway. I’ve always thought that mixing up the events at festivals such as these was the key to keeping them interesting. Sitting in a series of hotel meeting rooms for a couple of days leaves a little to be desired when it comes to delivering any sort of excitement factor. Dekkarit Festival certainly did not fall into that trap.

While the bulk of the action takes place at the Old Clubhouse there was certainly plenty happening elsewhere. Friday lunchtime we all packed into Teemu’s minivan and headed fifty kilometres into the countryside to Heinävesi to visit the swamp graves of Eine Nyyssönen and Riitta Pakkanen who were murdered at the Tulilahti campsite in 1959. The spot where their bodies were found is marked with two simple wooden crosses. As the years pass and the crosses are worn away by the elements they are replaced by a mysterious benefactor.

No one knows who the mystery guardian of the girls’ graves is but there is no shortage of mysteries when it comes to this case. The girls camped at the nearby and now defunct Tulilahti campsite but were buried some distance from the campsite in wet marshy ground. Easier to dig into perhaps. Next to where the makeshift graves were discovered lies the submerged remains of a small wooden boat. The boat was used by the killer (or killers) to row the girls’ bicycles out into the middle of the lake and dump them. When they were eventually found and pulled to the surface following several searches (the killer knew exactly where the deepest part of the lake was) it was discovered that the air had been let out of the bicycles’ tyres to help them sink.

 Although the person or persons responsible for the killings has never been found plenty of theories still exist as to his identity even after 58 years. Erik Runar Holmström was charged with the girls’ murders but protested his innocence all the way through his trial and even in the suicide note he left behind after hanging himself with a homemade noose while in custody. Many people doubted his guilt because of the distance the bodies would have had to have been moved from where they were killed at the campsite to where they were buried. Erik Runar Holmström was a short slightly built man and many thought him incapable of getting the bodies across the treacherous ground to their resting place. I’ve walked the distance involved and the killer was either a large well-built man or there were two of them. The distance is considerable and the terrain is uneven and tricky even when you’re not weighed down with a corpse.

Another suspect who was hardly talked about at the time was a German man by the name of Hans Assman. He was also implicated in the Lake Bodom murders a year later in 1960 as well as the Kyllikki Saari murder in 1953. There are similarities between the Heinävesi murders and the Kyllikki Saari murder in that both gravesites were marked by a sharpened branch being driven into the ground to mark the location of the secret graves.

Members of the search party in the Heinävesi murders were even told to look for such a branch. Assman was never formerly investigated for the Kyllikki Saari murder although it was thought at the time that he and his driver ran her over in their car before burying her body in a bog and dumping her bicycle in a nearby swamp. Assman was working for the KGB at the time and no one in the Finnish government had the stomach for upsetting their Soviet counterparts. Years later Assman hinted on his deathbed that he may have been involved.

"One thing however, I can tell you right away ... because it is the oldest one, and in a way it was an accident, that had to be covered up. Otherwise, our trip would have been revealed. Even though my friend was a good driver, the accident was unavoidable. I assume you know what I mean," he said.
Broken glass was found on the road near where she disappeared and a light-brown Opel similar to the one Assman owned was seen nearby by several witnesses. Assman’s wife reported that he came home with wet shoes and a sock missing and that several days later Assman and his driver left again. This time with a shovel.

No one has ever been convicted of the Heinävesi murders, nor the Kyllikki Saari murder nor the murders at Lake Bodom. In a land with 188,000 lakes it makes you wonder just how many bodies might still be out there. With that thought lodged firmly in our heads we headed back to the van. On the way back to Varkaus we stopped to climb an observation tower and take some photos of the wonderful scenery. We also took some time out to light a campfire and make coffee and cook sausages over the open flames. Chasing the ghosts of murdered girls had never been so much fun.
Back at the clubhouse there was a discussion panel on the Tulilahti murders and who might have committed them followed by a drive-in movie in the local car park.

At this point in time it can be confirmed that no arrests have been made in the Tulilahti inquiry and that the case remains open and unsolved despite the best efforts of everyone who joined us for sausages and coffee.

Saturday consisted of panel discussions in the clubhouse on such subjects as adapting crime fiction to the screen, historical crime novels and how crime books are born. I had a great conversation with the winner of the ‘Best Crime Book of the Year’ award Christian Rönnbacka about how he puts his books together. He comes up with a title first and then sends it to his graphic artist in Berlin who designs a cover for him that he feels will suit the title he has been given. When Christian receives the cover back he then sets about using that image to build the story in his head and works from there. Many writers, myself included I must confess, would look at that process and say that he is doing everything completely backwards. But as the saying goes there are many ways up the mountain and at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is that you get to the top.

At the dinner Christian was awarded his prize for ‘Best Crime Book of the Year’, a beautiful handmade drum from local artists Taikalaakso. This was not the only piece of art present at the festival. The walls of the clubhouse were lined with paintings by local artists all with some sort of dark or criminal leaning. I was interviewed in front of the assembled dinner guests about my journey from growing up in New Zealand to writing crime fiction in Finland via Australia, Northern Ireland and Iceland and my latest book ‘Out On The Ice’ then shortly after signing a few books I was interviewed again by Yle the national Finnish TV channel for a forthcoming culture show called ‘Egenland’. The rest of the night was spent wrestling booze out of a 19th century moonshine cellar and drinking with guests, locals and fellow writers at a local ‘speakeasy’. By the end of it all it was impossible not to have fallen in love with this arty, eccentric and adventurous festival.

A camping hut for the use of forest walkers in the Heinävesi area.

Discussion on the Tulilahti murders at the site of the swamp graves where the two girls were found.

And again talk turned to the possible suspects at the site of what was once the Tulilahti campsite.

Preparations for coffee and sausages after the perilous walk to the swamp graves.

Dekkarit Festival will be happening again on the last weekend of July in 2018 at the Old Clubhouse in Varkaus, Finland. The programme (in English) for this year's festival can be viewed here: