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: Final Curtain, by Kjersti Scheen

31 05 2017

Kjersti Scheen is a Norwegian journalist, illustrator, and author. She has won several national literary awards for her children’s fiction. She’s also achieved some success as a crime fiction writer, with at least five novels featuring private detective (and former actor, former police officer) Margaret Moss, though only one of these appears to have seen translation into English.


Final Curtain (Teppefall, 1994, translated by Louis Muinzer) bears no apparent relation to Ngaio Marsh’s novel of the same name, though both revolve around actors, infidelity, and murder. It’s the first of the Margaret Moss novels, in which Margaret is hired by her friend Rosa to investigate the disappearance of Rosa’s sister Rakel, an actor of some acclaim, on a train journey between Oslo and Bergen. There’s no motive discernible for Rakel’s disappearance, nor anything substantial by way of clues, so Margaret simply starts out by interviewing those of her acquaintances who have also known Rakel. But it’s not until her life is threatened that Margaret realises she may indeed be onto something …

The writing is staccato and rather choppy. I’m not sure how much of this is authorial style and how much might represent infidelities in the translation: I did find it notable that several of the characters were not consistently named. Georg is occasionally George, Karlsen is sometimes Karlesen, Rosa is Rose in some circumstances, and Cecelie makes at least one appearance as Cecilia, all of which does leave one wondering how much of the rest of the text is reliable. (Of course, Scheen wouldn’t be the first author to not be sure how her characters’ names were spelt, and I must concede some uncertainty, in my mid-20s, as to the spelling of my own middle name …) But though the prose sometimes muddles through in much the same way that Margaret muddles through the process of detection, the story does have enough of a pulse to it, particularly once it hits the second half, that the reader’s interest is maintained. And Margaret is an interesting character in her own right: there are the almost-obligatory problems with alcohol, but her relationship with her teenage daughter is well-drawn, her past is plausibly cluttered, her love life is haphazard and a trifle reckless, her dependence on a car and a dwelling that are each in significant need of repair causes problems and frustrations which add, in subtle ways, to the difficulty of her case as well as, on occasion, providing opportunities for understated humour. (I’m also inclined to view favourably any detective who sports a Moomin lapel badge: Moss’s is of ‘the little chap in a pointed cap who likes to travel’.)

The cover of the edition I read makes a direct comparison between Scheen’s writing and that of fellow Norwegian crime novelist Pernille Rygg: it’s an appropriate analogy, given the quirky characterisation (and unnecessary risk-taking by amateur-sleuth protagonists) in the works of both writers, though Rygg’s Igi Heitmann is a rather more cerebral creation than Scheen’s Margaret Moss, who seems to operate almost purely on instinct (and an aptitude for the lucky break just when she needs it most).

Ultimately, the explanation for Rakel’s disappearance is sufficiently involved, sufficiently unpredictable, and sufficiently plausible to justify the novel’s length, and Moss is a sufficiently intriguing character that it would be good to see rather more of her in English translation than just this one book.

Book review: Burned, by Thomas Enger

27 05 2017

Thomas Enger is a Norwegian crime writer, composer, and former journalist. His crime fiction, featuring journalist Henning Juul, has been nominated for the Petrona and eDunnit awards.


Burned (Skinndød, 2010, translated by Charlotte Barslund) opens with the discovery of a particularly grisly and ritualistic murder on Ekeberg Common: a young woman, Henriette Hagerup, a film student, is found half-buried in an otherwise-empty white tent. All indications are that she has been stoned to death. When her boyfriend, immigrant Mahmoud Marhoni, flees from the police, he automatically becomes prime suspect for the murder, with suspicion substantially strengthened by evidence of Henriette’s infidelity that subsequently comes to light. But journalist Henning Juul, newly returned to work after two years recuperating from the house fire that killed his young son Jonas, and partnered on the story with another journo he’s going to find it exceptionally difficult to get along with) believes there’s more to the crime than the simple honour killing the police are painting it as. So he digs deeper …

Enger’s writing is smart and insightful, with a good line in immediacy and the naturally unhurried development of tension. The characterisation is good and the backstory is searing. The author gets under his psychically- and physically-scarred protagonist’s skin: it becomes natural to see things as Juul does. We accept from the outset, even if we don’t immediately understand, his need to replace the batteries every single night on the eight smoke alarms in his apartment, his incapacity to light a match. And the setting—Juul works for the (fictional) online news startup 123news—feels up-to-the-minute, with its click-driven editorial direction, its hothouse management and open-plan workspaces, and its continual push to produce more content even as staff are being retrenched. The characteristic social commentary of Scandinavian crime fiction fits naturally alongside this setting. Against the many attractive features of the text, it feels almost petty to cavil, though I did find myself incompletely convinced by the ultimate accounting for the principal murder (I didn’t feel the case was properly made for demonstrating that the murderer was motivated for such a hands-on, brutal, and protracted method of execution), and I did also wish, on occasion, that the author would use a few more speech attributions: there were patches of dialogue, some as long as a complete page, where it was incredibly difficult to determine which character was speaking which lines. Those things said, it remains a highly impressive debut.

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.