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: When It Grows Dark, by Jørn Lier Horst

16 03 2017

Jørn Lier Horst is a former Norwegian police officer and a crime fiction writer whose ‘William Wisting’ series of police procedurals now comprises eleven titles, although the first five appear not to have been translated into English. His work has won numerous prizes including the Riverton, Glass Key, and Petrona awards.


When It Grows Dark (Når det mørkner, 2016, translated by Anne Bruce) is the most recent entry in the Wisting series but, aside from the present-day ‘framing story’ composed from the book’s first and last chapters, this short novel is essentially a prequel to the earlier books. The bulk of the text takes us back to the events of December 1983, when Wisting is just starting on a career as a policeman, but much of the text concerns an unsolved crime from over a half-century earlier, as Wisting tries to piece together the sequence of events that led to his discovery of a long-hidden car, pierced by bullet hotes, that lies in a dilapidated shed a short distance from a quiet country backroad. Who shot up the car? Why was it hidden? And how did the doors of the shed come to be padlocked on both the inside and outside? Most of the people who could have answered such questions have died of old age in the time that the car has lain rusting in the shed, but a few of those connected with the events leading to the vehicle’s long seclusion are still available for Wisting to interview. But will the young policeman manage to wrap up a mystery already fifty-eight years old?

There’s no sensationalism here, the story is told in plain and streamlined language, and yet the credible detail and methodical approach leads to a story that is, in its own way, quite compelling and steeped in atmosphere. It has much of the same sense of patient intrigue as Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series and, as a short novel that appears to comprise Wisting’s first significant case, it serves as an excellent introduction to Lier Horst’s writing.

Book review: The Human Flies, by Hans Olav Lahlum

9 03 2017

Hans Olav Lahlum is a Norwegian historian, chess player, politician, and holder, as interviewee, of the world record for longest broadcast interview (at slightly in excess of thirty hours non-stop). He’s also a crime novelist, with a series of recent novels, set in Oslo during the 1960s and 70s, featuring the protagonist K2 (Criminal Investigator Kolbjørn Kristiansen).


The Human Flies (Menneskefluene, 2010, translated by Kari Dickson) is the first in Lahlum’s K2 series, and opens with the discovery of the death, by gunshot, of retired politician and Norwegian resistance hero Harald Olesen, in his upstairs flat. Suspicion quickly falls on the building’s half-dozen other tenants, particularly the elderly Konrad Jensen, who during the war had been a Nazi sympathiser. But Kristiansen finds it difficult to believe that any of the building’s occupants, none of whom have watertight alibis, would genuinely be capable of murder; an assessment that lasts until he learns that each of them has been, for one reason or another, lying to him …

I have to say that it took me a while to warm to The Human Flies. The writing has a rather dated feel—which might, I suppose, be appropriate in a book set about a half-century ago, although my experience thus far of the work of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which was written about a half-century ago and set in the same era, suggests that it’s not at all necessary for crime fiction of such vintage to use stilted or stodgy prose. (I also take issue with one of the choices made in translation of the book, to express Oslo streetnames as, for example, ‘Erling Skjalgsson’s Street’ rather than ‘Erling Skjalgssons gate’ as it would appear on maps.) And engagement is not really helped by the personality of K2, who is quite bland and seems hardly to have a life other than as a policeman. But though the book is generally quite slow-moving, it does feature an intriguing mystery at its core, with an admirable (and generally plausible) number of twists to the investigation before the murderer is unveiled; and Kristiansen’s unofficial offsider, the paraplegic polymath and amateur sleuth Patricia Louise Borchmann, is an interesting character who, thankfully, also returns in the subsequent books in the series. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Oslo of 1968 to ascertain whether it’s historically reliable, but it feels authentic and Lahlum’s academic credentials (evidenced in the book’s afterword, as well as elsewhere in the text) bolster confidence on this score.

I’m not sure of the merits of a cross-genre comparison—many crime readers wouldn’t be deeply familiar with SF, nor vice versa—but I detect a degree of similarity with the prose style of SF writer (and dabbler in crime fiction) Isaac Asimov, who tends not to be read for his characterisations (which were pretty ordinary) but rather for the intricacy and imagination of his conceptual extrapolations, and for his reliance on sometimes protracted but generally insightful exposition. If you’re comfortable with Asimov’s writing style, you’ll probably click with Lahlum’s. (As I said, I’m not sure how useful such a comparison is, but I feel it worth noting nonetheless.)

In summary, this is a well-plotted mystery with a solid and nuanced historical background, expressed in language that can sometimes seem distancing. It would be interesting to discern whether the subsequent books in the series are a bit more fleet-footed than this debut.

Book review: Medusa, by Torkil Damhaug

31 10 2016

Torkil Damhaug is a Norwegian physician and novelist, who has written eight books of both crime and general fiction. Several of his crime novels, known collectively as ‘The Oslo Crime Files’, have been translated into English; Medusa (Se Meg, Medusa, 2007, translated by Robert Ferguson) is Damhaug’s crime debut.


Axel Glenne is a well-regarded Oslo GP and family man whose affair with a med student, Miriam Gaizauskaite, kickstarts a sequence of grim and sadistic murders for which Axel himself soon becomes the prime suspect: the first woman killed is a colleague, the second a terminal cancer patient, and both victims have been drugged with an anaesthetic to which, unlike the general public, a doctor would have ready access. But there are other troubling and puzzling features of the homicides as well: the victims have been mauled, as though by a wild animal, and there are bear tracks in the earth near the parkland settings of the two murders.

Axel knows he’s not guilty—not of murder, at any rate—but who is? He suspects his missing twin brother, Brede, who as a child always seemed to take the wrong path while Axel chose more wisely; but DCI Hans Viken, in the driving seat of the investigation, has short shrift with the notion of a mysterious twin brother, not seen in public for over two decades, and much prefers Axel as the culprit, despite the lack of anything by way of motive. It’s left to Viken’s younger subordinates, detectives Nina Jebsen and Arve Norbakk, to attempt to uncover the truth behind the horrific attacks before any further deaths occur.

Damhaug writes with clarity and an effective presentation of emotional depth. I suspect that he cannot be faulted on the medical content (of which there’s quite a bit, both in the foreground and the background); his handling of the police investigation is also assured and detailed. Officers Viken and Jebsen are particularly well-drawn; I’m not sure if they reappear in subsequent volumes of the series, but I hope so. Glenne, too, is creditably three-dimensional, although I didn’t really warm to him as a protagonist (too many avoidable poor choices).

Medusa is a well-constructed novel, intricate and carefully-paced, with a good variety of credible characters, and the climax is genuinely gripping. I wasn’t, however, completely convinced by the rationale behind the deaths, nor by the killer’s fatalistic indifference to the idea of his capture. And I was briefly thrown out of the story by what I suspect may be an error in translation: on p. 167, reference is made to two small bottles, one of which is labelled as containing ‘ethane’ and is used by the suspect as an anaesthetic. This is almost certainly meant to be ‘ether’, as I would expect a physician-author to be well aware.

Overall, though I enjoyed the book, I felt it took a few too many twists and turns. It does, at least, show considerable promise, and this would appear to be borne out with the award of the 2011 Riverton Prize (Norway’s annual crime fiction award) for Damhaug’s third ‘Oslo Crime Files’ novel, Firestarter.

Book review: The Butterfly Effect, by Pernille Rygg

24 10 2016

Pernille Rygg is a Norwegian novelist who has written three novels, published between 1995 and 2000. Of these books, her two murder mystery novels, both featuring the amateur detective Igi Heitmann, have also been translated into English.


The Butterfly Effect (Sommerfugleffekten, 1995, translated by Joan Tate) is Rygg’s debut, and therefore marks Igi Heitmann’s first appearance. Igi, a psychologist by training, is the recently-bereaved daughter of Andreas Heitmann, a police-officer-turned-PI who was investigating a case for Siv Underland, a young woman who turns up dead in a snowdrift on the outskirts of Oslo with a pair of bullet holes in her head, shortly after Heitmann senior’s cremation following his death in a hit-and-run accident. With no evidence of an assailant, and evidence that Underland herself had fired the gun that is found at her side, the police seem intent on treating Siv’s death as a suicide—but how is it that she managed to get off a second fatal shot? Igi believes that Underland has been murdered, and sets out to finish the case her father took on. She learns that Siv had been seeking answers on the disappearance, over a decade ago, of Petra Holmgren, the daughter of the Underlands’ one-time neighbours. Petra’s body ultimately comes to light (so to speak), which begs the question: how are the deaths of Petra, and Siv, and Igi’s father connected?

This is a dense and heavily-populated mystery novel which makes few concessions to the reader. There’s a tendency to begin scenes without preamble, and I often found it difficult to keep straight which thread Igi was currently following, and how the people she was seeking out were connected to the central matter: it’s the sort of book in which a dramatis personae would not be a gratuitous addition, but a welcome quick-reference tool. Despite the absence of such a feature, the book is certainly well worth persevering with: while Igi’s a little too ready to push her luck, displaying an audacity that only occasionally ends in disaster, she’s undeniably insightful, clearly intelligent, and possessed of a genuinely interesting perspective. Rygg has given her an intriguing home life, well-portrayed: a bisexual transvestite husband Benny, whose romantic dalliances tug at Igi’s heartstrings; a disapproving socialite mother and humourless, status-obsessed stepfather; and a loose cluster of high-achieving, bohemian-leaning friends. The broader community, among whom Igi searches out those who may have knowledge of the deaths, is also conveyed with an endearing mixture of curmudgeonliness and clarity. I’m tempted to say that the book has a noirish tone, but this applies much more to the setting than to the prose. The writing is highly expressive and tends to introspection (which would seem to be Igi’s default setting), but the action scenes are efficient and resonant.

The sequence of crimes is well-constructed, and is resolved in a satisfying manner; the human story of Igi herself is also well-handled, and the book achieves one of the best endings I’ve encountered. I’m looking forward to exploring the other Igi story (The Golden Ratio) in due course, and expect that I will end up wishing there were more to follow (which, given that Rygg’s most recent book was published in 2000, may well be a forlorn hope). But in any case, I’m of the opinion, after this one, that Rygg should be better known than she is.

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.

Book review(s): two Norwegian crime novels

3 08 2016

This is another two-for-one Scandinavian crime fiction review, albeit this time with the justification that the two novels are not only by the same author, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, but are also (in one edition, at least) published back-to-back in the same volume. Nesbø—whose career back catalogue includes stints as professional footballer, rock musician, and reporter—is well known as the creator of the ‘Harry Hole’ series of mystery novels, but these two short novels do not feature Hole; nor, in the strict sense, can they be classed as mysteries, since there is no detection involved. Instead, each novel deals with the attempts by a hitman, having fallen afoul of his employer, to make good an escape to some form of sanctuary. There’s thus a thematic connection between the two stories; which in fact also occur within the same world: events in one story are alluded to as background in the other story, though the protagonists differ and, to a first approximation, the stories can be read independently of each other. As it turns out, I read the second story first, and only realised that any form of connection existed between the two about halfway through the other story. (The Wikipedia page on Nesbø conflates the characters of Olav and ‘Ulf’, the respective protagonists of the two novels, as the same individual, something which my reading of the texts doesn’t support; but it’s possible I’ve overlooked some deeper connection between the two works, so I may be mistaken.)


In Blood on Snow (Blod på Snø, 2015, translated by Neil Smith), successful hitman Olav is hired by his boss, Oslo heroin kingpin Daniel Hoffmann, to kill Hoffmann’s young wife Carina. Olav, who has already undertaken several killings for Hoffmann and is concerned that the life expectancy of a hired killer with such detailed knowledge of his employer’s involvement in crime might reasonably be expected to diminish with each additional hit, reluctantly agrees to take on the task. But it’s more difficult to steel oneself to kill an attractive young woman than it is to dispatch a disloyal employee, and Olav, having staked out the apartment in which Corina spends her days, instead elects to adopt a different ‘fix’ to the problem of Hoffmann and his wife, unleashing some reasonably substantial unintended consequences in the process. It becomes necessary to flee the scene, but how can he handle the problem of Hoffmann’s fury at his insubordination, and who can he trust?


In Midnight Sun (Mere Blod, 2015, also translated by Neil Smith), a fugitive identifying himself only as ‘Ulf’ arrives by bus in the village of Kåsund, deep within Norway’s northernmost region, Finnmark, keen to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Oslo drug baron, known as ‘The Fisherman’, who has ordered his death. But visitors to Kåsund, even at the height of summer, are thin on the ground, and the locals are suspicious of Ulf’s claim that he has come here to hunt in the surrounding woodlands. Plus, with The Fisherman’s long reach and tenacity, it’s only a matter of time before those on his trail arrive to flush Ulf out … and, as his past history as a hired killer comes to the villagers’ notice, he finds himself as much at the mercy of locals such as the young, strait-laced widow Lea, the moonshine-peddling Mattis, and the resignedly hedonistic Anita as at the blind forces of time and luck.

In both Snow and Sun, Nesbø’s protagonists’ first-person narratives have a laconic, naïve honesty about them, and a natural storyteller’s flair that I found vaguely reminscent of Steinbeck. These are flawed, street-smart, surprisingly engaging individuals who have stumbled into their respective careers as hitmen out of ruthlessness or greed, but because all other doors seem to have been closed in their faces: they are reluctant killers, desperate to escape the traps in which they have become embedded, and motivated by a need to protect those for whom they care. I’m inclined to the view that the stories’ open and sometimes confessional style somewhat reduces the inbuilt tension and the impact of the occasional outbursts of violence—Nesbø does not seem to be aiming, here, for the sense of knife-edge desperation that propels the books of Åsa Larsson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, for example—but Snow and Sun are eminently readable, and imbued by a warmth and a degree of wisdom that, given their subject matter, might seem surprising.