In a nocturnal light and obscured by steam rising from the river, the railway bridge crossing over the River Pielisjoki could not have been anything else but a place for self-destructive men to do what they had to do, or to sell their soul to a femme fatale.

Bridge planks squeak under the man’s steps. Steel structures will play the tune of his determined steps long after the lonely walker has disappeared into the night. Bright lights directed straight down throw a mask-like shadow on the man’s face, hiding the look of his icy blue eyes, chillier than the river flowing beneath his feet, yet just as dark and relentless.

The man is walking to the tune of 80s’ synthesiser music, which delivers its feverishly pulsating beat to his world: the world in which anything can happen at any given time.

What if your neighbour is not who he seems to be?

The feline beast of the concrete jungle stares the passers-by in their eyes and is amused to notice they do not have an inkling of the survivor instinct that has kept the man alive – through the past seventeen years wrapped in cotton wool.

I modify a line from the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a crime writer”, and continue by quoting Woody Allen’s Manhattan: “Joensuu was his town, and it always would be.”

I got sucked into the world of detective stories at an early age. As a six-year old, I dictated my first detective story about a private detective in London, Simon Lindgren, to my mother who worked as a medical scribe for a surgeon. A few years later, at the age of nine, I had an opportunity to continue these adventures in the Karjalan maa newspaper. This serial story was my first published work.

At the beginning of my career, I could not imagine setting my stories in Joensuu, in my home town and the town of my birth. Joensuu’s rural milieu did not feed my imagination in any way. To me, it was impossible to see mysteries, hard-nosed heroes and ferocious action taking place in the same environment where I had gone to school, played yard games and gone sledging downhill.

The urban vampires of Laulumaa wasteland

As a 17-year-old, in the second grade of upper secondary school, I found my city in a new and unexpected way: through the lens of a video camera. I started going on nightly expeditions all around Joensuu to make short action films and thrillers In addition to a camera, I had earphones playing the soundtracks of my favourite films from worn-out cassette tapes.

Places such as Penttilä Sawmill, the area under the Suvantosilta Bridge on the Niinivaara side, the old butchery and its surroundings, the roof of the university library and the graveyards for scrap cars in the industrial area, opened up in my imagination as something remarkably fresh and full of potential.

The railway bridge crossing the River Pielisjoki looked like it was straight from the legendary Daredevil cartoons of Frank Miller. In the nocturnal light and obscured by steam rising from the river, the railway bridge crossing over the River Pielisjoki could not have been anything else but a place for self-destructive men to do what they had to do, or to sell their soul to a femme fatale.

In the early morning mist, the grassy field behind Laululava appeared as scary wasteland, through which a group of urban vampires decisively walked towards the sleeping city and its unsuspecting residents. After finding the symbolic dark side of Joensuu, I have not let go. And I never will.

What if your neighbour is not who he seems to be?

I have lived for ten years in the idyllic rural village of Käsämä, approximately 30 km towards Kuopio from Joensuu. I have made a living by writing detective stories for pretty much the same duration of time. I have selected familiar environments within the radius of 100 km as the stage set for my stories. And certainly not for the reason that it is easy and cheap for an author living off a grant to make excursions to such places, but because, through them, it is still intriguing to approach the key question of plots: “What if?” What if a biological weapon from the war times is still floating in the local waterways? What if the charming chap next door is really a master thief hiding behind a false identity? What if the fire that destroyed Penttilä Sawmill was really the revenge of a dead boy who was bullied at school?

Even today, if I want to charge the batteries of my imagination, to be inspired, or to watch film noir, visible only to me in my mind’s eye, I grab my portable music player, drive to the River Pielisjoki shore, and start wandering the streets of Joensuu. And I never return empty-headed, as every time, I meet a new frightening challenger, an innocent soul needing help or a new femme fatale who seduces men to destruction with her sinful whispers, and downright demands me to write her story. And who am I to say no to the stories of the streets?

Tuomas Lius, author

Themes: Story