Book review: Don’t Look Back, by Karin Fossum

6 02 2018

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist with a background in healthcare, best known for her long-running ‘Inspector Konrad Sejer’ series of police procedurals. She’s won numerous awards for her writing, including the Riverton, Glass Key, Martin Beck, and Gumshoe awards. I’ve previously reviewed several of Fossum’s other titles in the ‘Konrad Sejer’ series.


Don’t Look Back (Se deg ikke tillbaka!, 1996, translated by Felicity David) is the second in the Sejer series, though the first to appear in English translation. It opens with the apparent abduction of five-year-old Ragnhild on her walk home from a sleepover within a small Norwegian community, but (on Ragnhild’s safe return) instead becomes an investigation into the murder of fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Annie Holland (her body found by Ragnhild), dead, naked and ostensibly drowned in the backwoods tarn on whose shore she was left lying. Within the close-knit community Annie was widely known and apparently universally liked; so why was she killed? There are no signs of sexual assault, no indications of her involvement in anything illicit: Sejer and his colleagues must dig deep within the mess of secrets that lurk at the little village’s heart.

Fossum’s crime novels have a tendency to unfold with a surprising gentleness, in part because Konrad Sejer is an atypical Nordic sleuth—a soft-spoken, abstemious, widowed grandfather, seemingly unwilling to think ill of his fellow humans—and in part because Fossum takes care to subtly emphasise the humanity and complexity of all her characters. It’s almost possible, if one doesn’t probe too deeply within the story, to categorise it as ‘cosy’; and yet that would be a mistake, since there is definitely a grim backbone of steel beneath the writing’s outer layers, and a terrier-like determination to Sejer’s investigational style. The crime that unfolds is tragic on several levels, and more confronting because we have been led to care about all of the participants. Fossum is, for my money, one of the best of the Nordic crime novelists, her unhurried storytelling both intellectually and emotionally satisfying (and, often, as here, thoroughly disquieting).


Book review: Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum

19 06 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist, most widely known (in English translation, at least) for her series of novels featuring the widowed Inspector Konrad Sejer. I’ve previously reviewed other books in this series here and here.


Bad Intentions (Den onde viljen, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) is nominally the ninth in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series, but it seems only peripherally to concern itself with Sejer per se, who gets point-of-view priority in only a handful of chapters. Instead, the narrative is most closely concerned with the mindset of Philip Reilly, a drug-addicted young hospital porter and sidekick to amoral, overconfident alpha male Axel Frimann, following the drowning of Reilly’s and Frimann’s troubled friend Jon Moreno in a late-night boating accident on a small lake. Frimann decides it’s too much bother to report the accident accurately, and persuades Reilly to conspire with him on a version of events which omits any mention of the three of them in the small rowboat and instead has Moreno suicidal and intent on drowning himself. It’s an act Frimann can carry off without qualms, but Reilly has a more difficult time of it, and is wracked with a worse sense of guilt than he carried before the accident. Moreno’s girlfriend, mother, and psychiatrist all know something is wrong with the story Frimann and Reilly present, as do the police, but there seems no way of knowing what dark secret the three men had held before Jon’s death … until another body turns up.

While I would have liked to see more of Sejer in this novel, I can’t really fault Fossum for the psychological depth of Reilly’s portrayal, nor of the other principal characters in this work. Fossum’s background in institutional work and in drug-addict rehabilitation shows through in her handling of Jon Moreno’s mental-health issues, though I couldn’t help but feel that the character of Hanna Wigert, Jon’s psychiatrist, was a fairly close copy of Dr Sara Struel, the psychiatrist in Fossum’s earlier novel He Who Fears The Wolf, even down to the discussion, with Sejer, of the importance of props such as dolls and toys as a means of encouraging inpatients to open up about deep-seated anxieties they might be experiencing. In other aspects, though, Bad Intentions is a satisfyingly different story than the others of the Sejer series with which I’m familiar. And Fossum’s characterisation and subtly subversive plotting is always a strength of her work, which darkens so gently and with so little fuss that one doesn’t notice, until it’s too late, the depths to which the reader has descended …

Book review: He Who Fears The Wolf, by Karin Fossum

6 04 2017

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian poet and crime novelist whose work, principally her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of murder mysteries, has won numerous awards. I’ve previously reviewed her crime novel debut, In the Darkness, here.


He Who Fears The Wolf (Den som frykter ulven, 1997, translated by Felicity David) is the third in Fossum’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. It opens with Errki Johrma, an escapee from a psychiatric institution, who is seen at the scene of a brutal murder of an elderly woman at a backwoods farm, and thereby immediately becomes prime suspect for the deed. But police efforts to find the troubled Errki are hampered by his subsequent disappearance, and resources become stretched when the nearby town’s bank is robbed the next morning, with an ensuing hostage drama.

This is an intriguing, well-paced mystery with vividness and depth. Fossum displays considerable empathy with her protagonists on both sides of the law. There’s an undercurrent of completely unforced situational humour in the working relationship between Sejer and his offsider, Skarre: a couple of the conversations between them, as they discuss their progress in the case—and as something else plays out between them—are highly amusing. I’m not sufficiently familiar with Fossum’s work to know whether such humour is an ongoing part of her writing, but it works wonderfully here. There’s an astonishingly personal (though, again, quite unforced) piece of character exposition in the lengthy exchange that occurs between Sejer and Dr Struel, the psychiatrist who for several months has been seeking to unpick the issues that torment Errki Johrma. And the characters of Errki, the hostage, the bank robber, and Kannick, the reform-school boy who reported the woman’s death, are sensitively and insightfully drawn. In time, every piece of the backstory emerges, takes shape, and attains significance. The story rewards on several levels. Part of this is due to something in the writing for which the best summary comes from the text itself:

[Skarre] also had that rare talent of directing at everyone the same amount of genuine attention, even at those that didn’t interest him

Fossum’s writing, I think, shares this talent. Even the third-string players in the story—even, I would suggest, the psychiatrist’s rubber toad—have their own vital part to play, and are afforded three-dimensionality for their troubles. It makes for a highly engrossing book, and one which, despite its inherent solidity, is over too soon.