Monday, November 1, 2010


I spent a couple of nights, last month, in a Finnish prison.
And it was all Jan Erola’s fault.
Or maybe it was Eetu Alvik’s.
The mug shots above are of the two people in question, the ones who conspired to lure me to Helsinki and lodge me in the slammer.
But I gotta admit – I loved it.
It was this way:
Jan is my Finnish Publisher and Eetu is his talented and charming sales manager.

Their company, Helsinki-kirjat (Helsinki Books), has just launched the Finnish version of Buried Strangers,
and they were kind enough to invite me up to their lovely city to chat with some readers, sign some books and do a few interviews. One of those interviews was shot on video – and, if you haven’t seen it already, you can see it here:

But I digress.
I was going to tell you about my time in jail.

This is the joint.
And here’s the story: In 1809, Sweden lost Finland to Russia. Some years later, Tsar Nicholas I set out to modernize the conditions of Finnish prisons and built one in the new capital of Helsinki. It’s the white wing that you see in the aerial photograph, completed in 1837. A half century later, the place was enlarged (the three redbrick wings) by Tsar Alexander III. In its heyday,  more than 40% of all the prisoners in Finland passed through this place.

The cells were  7 m2 in size and none of them had a toilet or a shower.

Fast forward to 2002. The prison was closed and the last prisoners were transported to a brand-new prison in Vantaa, near Helsinki’s international airport. And the city was stuck with this big, white (and red) elephant. But then, in 2005, somebody got a bright idea. Why not turn the place into a hotel?
And so they did. Construction began in 2006 and was completed in 2007. The bars were removed, new windows added and tons of soil carried away. But the high walls surrounding the yard, the outer walls surrounding the building and the central hallway were preserved in their original form.
And these days, folks, it’s the Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka, just one of the agreeable surprises for visitors to Helsinki. It wasn't my first visit to that lovely town, but it has been many years since I was last there, and I'm happy to report that jail conditions have improved immeasurably.
This time my cell had a sauna.  

Another agreeable surprise was the place where I gave a little talk:

It was the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the Academic Bookstore, the most prestigious establishment of its type in all of Finland and the largest bookstore in all of the Nordic countries.
It's pictured above.
A brilliant piece of minimalist design, and the work of one of Finland’s (many) architectural geniuses,
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto, the “Father of Modernism”.

Don’t think you know Aalto?
Sure you do. Maybe not by name, but you must have seen one of these:

That's Aalto's work, as is a lot of furniture design - and many, many buildings.

Ah, to be treated, once again, like a jailbird in Helsinki!
It’s an experience every author should have. And every author can. If she/he is lucky enough to be published by the wonderful folks at Helsinki Books.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Hi Leighton,

    I thought, wow, that prison looks like a hotel!

    The library is beautiful.


  2. Congratulations, Leighton. Also a terrific experience.

  3. Great, Leighton -- I want to GO THERE.

  4. Leighton--

    To quote the late, great British rock band, The Move--"Lock me in and throw the keys awayyyyyyyyy."


  5. Wait a minute--this raises the disturbing possibility that Best Western is running a Helsinki black ops prison for the spooks. Down below the luxury cells, in the bowels of that ancient prison, are real cells housing terrorists who are being tortured with complimentary breakfasts of pale brown coffee-ish liquids and cardboard pastries, and being forced to memorize every word in their free copy of USA Today...

    Gotta run--I think there's a profitable potboiler steaming up my word processor.


  6. You make incarceration sound like fun. In a long ago, far away life I investigated suicides in NYC prisons. Maybe it was the room service?


  7. I just finished reading A Nail Through the Head. I loved it because of the Thai background - and your good writing, of course.

    I also enjoyed this post.

  8. How cool that your work has made it to Finland! That's almost as cool as being in lock-up there!

  9. Writer Lady -

    A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART is a wonderful book and I am sure you will be equally enthusiastic about the other books Tim Hallinan wrote in the Poke Rafferty series.

    Leighton Gage not only writes terrific posts on Murder Is Everywhere, he also writes an equally good series set in Brazil . His four Inspector Mario Silva books, BLOOD OF THE WICKED, BURIED STRANGERS, DYING GASP, and the soon to be released EVERY BITTER THING, are a series you shouldn't miss.


  10. Ah, Finland! Definitely a place I'll just have to see someday. That Helsinki prison-turned-hotel reminds me of a similar project that was completed in 2003 in the beautiful city of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. It's a former military prison turned art gallery/youth hostel, and it's located at the heart of the autonomous social centre of Metelkova Mesto, which used to be the headquarters of the Yugoslav National Army in Slovenia. More than 80 Slovenian artists took part in the renovation of the former prison, which is now known simply as Hostel Celica (celica = Slovenian word for "cell").

    You can get a peek at some of the rooms (along with some more info on the hostel, if you should so desire) right here:

    Sorry if this seems like a plug, I really don't mean to turn this blog into an advertisement platform! The story of how Metelkova Mesto came to be what it now is truly is fascinating and a perfect example of the importance Ljubljančani (Ljubljana residents) feel towards their own history and culture. Very inspiring.

  11. Great post Leighton - I now desperately want to be published in Finland!

    Are you watching Alcatraz?

  12. Thank You, Friends of this blog (and my fellow Blogmates) for all of your kind comments about this post.
    Please excuse my tardiness in responding. It's been a busy week, culminating, yesterday, in my publisher's acceptance of "A Vine in the Blood", the next Silva book, due out in December of 2011. And just, today, I'm happy to say, I received my author's copies of the 2010 entry, "Every Bitter Thing", beginning to appear in bookstores throughout the U.S.

    It does look like a library, doesn't it?
    But it's a bookstore - and what a bookstore!
    I want to move to Helsinki and live in there.

    Writer Lady,
    Welcome to our blog and, on behalf of Tim, thanks for your praise of his "Nail through the Heart". I share your enthusiasm. It's an honor to share this blog with him.
    And, oh yeah, I know you wrote "head", but we both know that was a typo, right?
    Also, I know it gets confusing, sometimes, who posted what. Exacerbated by the fact that we sometimes forget to sign our posts. But usually you'll find our names and the day at the bottom of every new one.

  13. Beth,
    Ah, Dear Beth, a plug for my own books.
    And right here on our blog, too.
    Thank you!

    Now, Annie, that wasn't a plug at all. What Beth did was a (highly appreciated) plug. What you did was a (highly appreciated) contribution, every bit within the spirit of this blog.
    How come you know so much about Ljubljana? I stopped there once on my way between Trieste and Vienna - by bicycle, no less.
    I somehow wound up in a café trying to communicate with a few Yugoslavians in German. It got easier with every beer I drank. And I drank a lot of them.
    Tito was still alive back then. That's how long ago it was. And, if I'm not mistaken, he died right there in Ljubljana.

    It's bound to happen. Your work is far too good not to be. But, when it happens, a word of advice:
    Be very, very careful about accepting dinner invitations while there.
    If your publisher is Helsinki books, Jan and Eetu will ply you with vast quantities of alcohol and the next thing you know you're waking up in jail.
    I know.
    It happened to me.

  14. Thank you for your reply, Leighton! I'm quite excited right now, because I got my copy of EVERY BITTER THING in the mail today... I guess Christmas came a bit early this year. Can't wait to read it!
    The reason I know a thing or two about Ljubljana is because I had to do research for something I'm writing... and I tend to be thorough in my research. All that's left for me to do is to actually go there, so my itinerary is now as follows: all of the Nordic countries, Slovenia, Russia, and of course I'll have to see those gigantic waterfalls you told me about... Iguaçu Falls, I believe it was?

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.