Over the last few years, the writers Birk Rohelend and Katrin Pauts have set out to enrich the Estonian crime genre with grim, trying tales set in otherwise idyllic small communities. Both women started out writing crime-novel series, and have received notable recognition for their works. Rohelend’s and Pauts’ growing popularity shows that the contemporary Estonian crime genre truly is starting to thrive and acquire its own unique visage.

Birk Rohelend (b 1981) is already a relatively well-known author in Estonia. Her debut novel I, Mortimer (Mina, Mortimer) was published in 2007. At the time, the book, which explores the mental worlds of grieving youth, was refreshing in the context of Estonia’s literary scene, and was also awarded in a competition for youth literature. Rohelend (who is a genetic technician by education and currently works as a communications expert) has undergone several different stages in her writing since her debut, and has tried out multiple genres, also writing scripts for popular television series, prose, and poetry. The first volume of her Silva Stökel crime series, You Have to Kiss Silva (Sa pead suudlema Silva), was published in late 2016 and immediately had positive public reception.

The events of the novel commence on an evening when the protagonist, Silva Stökel, a journalist and the mother of a small boy, almost gets into a car accident due to exhaustion from insomnia. She is haunted by the feeling that the woman she nearly runs over is none other than her childhood friend Helena, a girl who disappeared without a trace twenty years earlier. When Silva starts following her friend’s trail, it quickly becomes clear that the disappearance is far from the only bloody and horrifying secret concealed in the seemingly quiet and peaceful town of Omavere (a name that translates to “own blood” in Estonian). Silva’s exceptionally tense, thrilling quest for both herself and the truth starts to blur the line between dreams and reality, exacerbated by the woman’s fatigue from raising an autistic child.

Commenting on the impetus for writing the novel, Rohelend has said: “Since I’m personally a very big fan of the crime genre, I’ve sometimes been bothered over the years by its artificial simplicity, as if the detective him- or herself doesn’t have any personal issues.” She’s also said that her work in TV scriptwriting has been a great benefit in refining her plot structures: the experience doubtless helped her to craft this multi-layered work, in which tension isn’t relieved for a single moment, and several different plot strands are active at once.

You Have to Kiss Silva possesses undeniable elements of “Nordic noir”, and thus offers readers the joys of both discovery and familiarity.


Katrin Pauts (b 1977) rocketed onto the Estonian literary scene in 2016 with her debut novel The Policeman’s Daughter (Politseiniku tütar), which is the first volume in her own crime series and made her one of the country’s most-read authors last year. The second book in this series has also been released since then: The Torchbearer (Tulekandja, 2017), the first print run of which sold out almost immediately. Pauts worked for close to ten years as a news and entertainment journalist, and had long dreamed of trying out her skills as an author. The colorful cast of characters she encountered during this media career only swelled her pool of inspiration, leaving Pauts with no choice but to start writing. Now, she also works as a freelance television editor and screenwriter.

Pauts’ gloomy, hostile, and sometimes even bloodcurdling storylines are set within the picturesque natural beauty of Estonia’s islands: Saaremaa, the country’s largest, and Pauts’ own home of Muhu. The character Eva Niimand (who is also a journalist) sets out to solve the mysteries. Like Rohelend’s Silva Stökel, Niimand returns to her childhood home at the beginning of the series’ first volume, and ends up finding the answers to a long-unsolved crime that is tied to her own past. In The Policeman’s Daughter, three young women disappear from the little village of Tuulegi when the protagonist is just a child: one is later found dead, but the others vanish without a trace. Adding to the mystery, the main police officer investigating the case disappears, and his wife takes her own life by walking straight into the sea. In The Torchbearer, Niimand investigates the case of red-haired women who are mysteriously being killed on dark, deserted roadsides.


Fear and loathing in little villages

The plot device of journalists – not detectives or undercover spies – investigating and solving crimes tends to be more the norm than an anomaly in contemporary criminal literature. Examples include Liza Marklund’s protagonists Annika Bengtzon and Maria Eriksson, as well Stieg Larsson’s well-known Mikael Blomkvist. The relocation of horrifying crime sites from metropolises to small rural areas also took place quite long ago in the genre: one popular example is naturally Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby and his bucolic but crime-filled Midsomer County.

Nevertheless, this fact doesn’t diminish the contribution of Rohelend’s and Pauts’ novels to uncovering the terrible secrets and psychological reality of seemingly idyllic, sparsely-populated places. The somber social truth of life in deserted rural areas is convincingly portrayed here in a more contemporary style, with innumerable everyday tragedies existing alongside the bloody murders. As one of Pauts’ characters remarks: “I don’t doubt that you all know how such things go in places like those. She went to some party. She met somebody there, they were together for a couple days, and then she got pregnant. She looked the guy up, but he naturally couldn’t care less. Would any of them? The girl and I discussed it, and we figured it’d be better for her to have it, all the same. We hoped we’d get by, somehow. It was the same with me, back then… he was the one who left us. I’ve never regretted it once, even though it was hard.” (Politseiniku tütar, p 35)

Rohelend uses her fictional Omavere to depict the stuffiness and nastiness of a small town with extreme bluntness and precision. Far from the capital, in a place where corruption runs riot and everyone knows everybody else for generation after generation, tensions run deep in a strong culture of “just pretend everything’s alright”. Anonymity is nonexistent and every new resident is an event in and of themselves (usually an unpleasant one); every excessive question is met with scornful silence. No one wants to lose their place in the small settlement’s pseudo-hierarchy, and therefore it’s simpler for the community to just look away from certain acts, including severe crimes. The locals do so in the naïve hope that even though nothing remains a secret forever, perhaps it will at least last until the end of their own lifetimes.

Whereas Rohelend’s Omavere is an imaginary setting, Pauts’ murders take place on the picturesque islands of Saaremaa and Muhu, where visitors and locals alike now have a reason to look over their shoulders with a sense of dread. Pauts’ writing shows an exceptional flair for filling beautiful places with dread, but another subject entirely is the effect that crime-novel fame can have upon a small community, i.e. whether the locals themselves are pleased to be associated with a story that is gruesome, albeit imaginary. Estonians ordinarily make an effort to put their tiny hometowns on the map and lodge them in public awareness in positive ways, using tools that range from Estonian “extreme swinging” to local yard-café events… But then, all of a sudden, someone records these sites in literature as a place where someone was brutally murdered, or where a murderer grew up. At the same time, it’s also possible this fame will attract large numbers of crime-fan tourists, who will boost the turnover at the local cafés in turn.

One thing is certain: Birk Rohelend’s Silva Stökel and Katrin Pauts’ Eva Niimand are undoubtedly women worth keeping an eye on in the coming years. The same goes for these characters’ creators, who have confirmed in both word and deed that they are in the Estonian literary scene to stay. Pauts has teasingly hinted that much more than crime novels can be expected from her in the near future: “I think I won’t be disappearing from literature any time soon, but whether crime will remain my genre – or how much more I can be bothered to write these island thrillers – is another thing entirely. I’ve actually already gotten pretty fed up with my protagonist Eva, which is also a cliché, I have to admit. Crime writers always say their main character annoys them. Agatha Christie hated Poirot, and Henning Mankell thought Wallander was an unpleasant person. That might also come from having had enough of it: I suppose writing a series inhibits a writer’s fantasy from being in perpetual motion, to a certain extent.”


Sources cited:

Mehis Tulk. “Möldri tütar, kes tahab olla sihvakas palgimänd”. Saarte Hääl. 07.07.2016.

Janar Ala. “Eesti kirjanik nr 1”. Postimees. 1.03.2017.

“Birk Rohelend: pidin raamatu kirja saamiseks tegema teletööd”. ERR Kultuuriportaal. 30.11.2016.

Mari Klein (b 1979) has been active in journalism with varying degrees of success for 20 years. She has edited more than 50 books and literary sections in several newspapers, and has written reviews and synopses.