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.

Book review(s): two Scandinavian murder mysteries

8 09 2016

Another doubled-up Scandicrime book review. This time the authors are of different nationalities (Norwegian versus Swedish), but there’s more than just a coincidence of name that they share: both books are concerned with astute, unconventional women who prefer, one way or another, to live on the margins. And with brutal acts of bloody murder. (And, tangentially, with ponytailed men: what’s with that?)


Karin Fossum, who won the (Nordic crime) Glass Key Award in 1996, is a Norwegian crime fiction writer and poet who has also worked in healthcare and drug rehabilitation. She’s probably best known for her ‘Inspector Sejer’ series of novels.

In the Darkness (Evas Øye, ‘Eva’s Eye’, 1995, translated by James Anderson) is Fossum’s debut novel—though it followed several volumes of poetry—and the first of the ‘Inspector Sejer’ series. Sejer seems a distinctly more kindly and inherently approachable person than other notable Scandinavian sleuths such as Wallander and Erlendur (he has more in common, I think, with Patrik Hedström from Camilla Läckberg’s ‘Fjällbacka’ series), but he’s arguably not the principal character in Darkness, which focusses on the predicament, and indeed the mental state, of the bohemian artist Eva Magnus, who on discovering, with her daughter Emma, the waterlogged and badly decomposing body of a man being carried by spring melt down the town’s river, elects to phone not the police (as she tells her daughter) but rather her elderly father. It transpires that the corpse (once the police have been notified of it by some more civic-minded, less unorthodox citizen) is that of brewery worker Egil Einarsson, first reported missing six months previously and now revealed to have been brutally murdered. It transpires also that Einarsson was last seen alive just three days after the death by suffocation of call-girl (and Eva’s childhood friend) Maja Durban, the town’s only other notable unsolved homicide. Could the two deaths be connected in some manner? And what kind of danger has Eva found herself in?

Fossum’s prose is a pleasure to read—the long(ish) description that opens the book’s second chapter, an unhurried river’s-eye-view of the town central to the novel’s unravelling, is exquisite—and the ensemble cast, headed up by Eva and Sejer, is well fleshed out. This is a very accomplished first novel, and seems a logical starting point from which to explore the Inspector Sejer series. The central crime is fully explored and resolved within the book’s pages, but two or three significant background strands of plot (which, in order to avoid spoilishness, I won’t enumerate further) are left largely hanging, which detracted from my enjoyment of the ending. Of course, in life not all details will be tidied away with decorous expedience, but one is, I think, entitled to some untidiness in life which cannot generally be extended to fiction, nor specifically to a murder mystery novel. Notwithstanding this sense of frayed edges, In the Darkness is a compelling book, elegantly expressed, and Sejer is a promising focal figure for a series of this type.


Karin Alvtegen is a Swedish crime fiction writer, teleplay writer, and grandniece of Astrid Lindgren. Her Glass-Key-award-winning book Missing (Saknad, 2000, translated by Anna Paterson) is her second novel, though it appears to have been the first translated into English.

Sibylla Forsenström, the banished only daughter from a wealthy but psychologically damaging family, is, as the book opens, a high-functioning homeless woman, accustomed to living off her wits on the streets of Stockholm, and doing rather well by it. But she has the misfortune to choose as her mark, one evening at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, the same middle-aged businessman whom an obsessive and brutal serial killer has selected for butchery. She is the last person to have been witnessed in the doomed businessman’s company, her prints are on his room key, and she is completely without alibi: thus, on the run, she becomes not merely the prime suspect but the only suspect. Her sole imperative is to stay hidden—something for which, after fifteen years of practice, she has a natural aptitude—until the police can find a killer they are not searching for. But there is only so long that she can hope to remain at large before her luck runs out …

Missing is, ultimately, a murder mystery, but for much of its span it’s a tale of simple (or not-so-simple) survival, told partly as Sibylla is on the run, seeking refuge in those of her old haults that she considers safe, alone or with those of her outsider colleagues in whom she feels she can place some minimal trust, and partly in flashback as Sibylla experiences an adolescence that is alternately pampered and bruising. She’s an engaging, sympathetically flawed character whose strengths may not suffice to keep her from the arms of the police, or of someone yet worse. Alvtegen’s insights into the lives of the homeless feel credible and detailed, and most of the book’s twists and turns devolve naturally from Sibylla’s need to stay one step ahead of the police. And the somewhat unorthodox focus on flight, rather than on deduction, gives the story a sense of freshness. It’s well told, and emotionally satisfying, though (in some contrast to In the Darkness) I did feel that it was tied up a little too neatly at the end. (To clarify my respective niggles on this score, and without wanting to be overly prescriptive on these matters, I would expect that a murder mystery novel should reasonably resolve every significant plot point of relevance to the central crimes, while closing with the suggestion that the protagonists’ lives remain complicated. Both of these novels tested this expectation in ways I wouldn’t, as it were, expect.)

While I haven’t (yet) read any other books by either author, I have the strong suspicion that neither Eva nor Sibylla gets a return visit in later works. Which on one level is a pity, because they’re both strongly memorable characters.