Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Jim Thompson’s Last Walk





(Right to left: Jim and I at Hilpeä Hauki with our signed copies of "On the Brinks."
Photo by Annukka Öljymäki)

One summer evening, in Lahti, Finland, Jim Thompson went out for a walk on his own. He never made it back home.

Jim was one of life’s singular characters – a brilliant wit and a likeable cage rattler with a great turbine of a mind. He was a loving husband to Annukka, a father to Christopher and a great friend to many people. As an informative interviewee for this journalist he was also a brilliant story teller. As a conversationalist he will be an impossible act to follow. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Jim had few equals in the sphere of what he called “hard writing.” His Inspector Kari Vaara novels spared readers nothing when it came to racism, prostitution, police corruption and cold blooded murder in Finland. These novels stand as a testament to Jim’s fearlessness to write about the dark underbelly of Finland, something which many Finns would rather ignore. 

Jim was a man of insatiable appetites – for great writing, beers with vodka chasers, cigarettes and, above all, for expansive conversation. When we talked on the phone we would congratulate ourselves for keeping our phone calls to under two hours. It was during these conversations that I would leave my flat and just start walking without wondering or caring where I might end up.  

There was no subject too big or too small for Jim. I was very impressed by his knowledge of English Philology – for which he was awarded a Master’s degree by the University of Helsinki - the Northern Ireland “Troubles” and his ability to effortlessly quote from Irish literature, especially the work of Yeats. 

Sam Millar, the acclaimed Belfast based crime writer had Jim write the introduction to “On the Brinks.” This is Sam’s roller coaster memoir about how he eventually came to play a role in the 1993 Brinks heist, the fifth biggest robbery in U.S. history, and the aftermath. Sam kindly sent two signed copies of Brinks to Helsinki, one for me and the other for Jim. I was very excited. I had the job of hand delivering Jim’s copy to him. We met in his “office”, a bar called Hilpeä Hauki in the Kallio area of the city. Jim was very humbled when he opened his copy of Brinks and actually saw his words in print.  

I will miss, as Jim’s readers will, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page.  But most of all I will miss the unpublished Jim: his quality company, the laughs that we had and the advice which he gave me. One of the last conversations we had was when I was on holiday in Oulu in July 2014. Jim was impressed by my articles criticizing the hiring practices in Finnish higher education. He encouraged me to continue to be brave with my words and thoughts and to stick to my guns. I will. 

The lake in Lahti, which took Jim’s life failed to drown his spirit. At any time I can reread his books, play back our taped interviews and rediscover and recover him.

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