Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum

I heard a BBC radio interview with Karin Fossum a couple of years ago and have been meaning to read some of her books ever since.  Scandinavia seems to be producing crime noir novelists faster than it cranks out vodka. Everyone in the world but me seems to have read Stieg Larsson's trilogy, and Henning Mankell -- a fellow Swede -- is equally renowned. Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland usually comes up in any discussion of Nordic crime fiction, and the London Times voted Norwegian Karin Fossum one of the top 50 crime writers of all time.

I don't read much crime fiction.  There's no good reason for that -- it just doesn't seem to be my genre of choice. In the radio interview, though, Fossum caught my attention when she said that her murderers are never monsters or freaks.  They're ordinary people who find themselves in exceptional circumstances.  They are your accountant, or the fellow who delivers the groceries.  This seemed realistic to me.  Of course Hannibal Lecter makes for great fiction, but really -- how many cannibalistic psychiatrists are out there?  

Fossum's detective is Inspector Konrad Sejer:  very tall, white-haired, widowed, pensive, unsmiling and glum, he lives alone with Kollberg, his enormous Leonberger dog.  Kollberg makes unfortunately few appearances in the story, and he also sounds like a depressive, but it's Norway after all.  

My friend Charlene squealed when I mentioned that I grew up in Maine, which she knows as Stephen King territory.  She asked if it's a scary place to live.  After a moment, I said yes -- it's full of old villages with lots of eccentric, reclusive, alcoholic and/or destitute people.  Stephen King characters, in other words.  In the same way, small towns tucked in among the Norwegian fjords seem like the perfect breeding ground for mundane murderers.  Everyone knows everyone, for better and worse.  Let's face it:  small towns can seem quaint one moment and sinister the next.  Karin Fossum tip-toes back and forth across that line like a ballerina.

Small towns in the northern latitudes, however, have a distinctive gloom.  Depression just develops more nuance and depth with every degree northward.  How many words does Norwegian have for 'bleak'?  Probably as many as the Inuits have for snow.  Here, Inspector Sejer interviews Halvor, a moping young man even more glum since the murder of his girlfriend, Annie.  Sejer asks,

"Did she seem unhappy about anything?"
"Not exactly unhappy. More... I don't know. Maybe more sad."
"Is that something different?  Being sad?"
"Yes," he said looking up. "When someone is unhappy, he still hopes for something better. But when he gives up, sadness takes over."

I doubt that's a distinction that a Thai or a Jamaican would draw.  In the small Norwegian village, no one looks like an especially promising suspect, and thus everyone starts to look equally suspect.  Sejer starts to look a lot like his dog:  plodding and quiet but with good instincts.  He gets his man, but Fossum won't let us readers sigh with relief as we toss the book down.  She throws a wrench into the works on the last page or two that will leave a queasy knot in every stomach.  But then, it could be just another normal day in the village of Lundeby...  It's no mean trick for an author, sustaining the suspense while keeping everything so firmly rooted in the ordinary. 

I'm in no position to rate or rank this book as it compares to others of its kind, having read so pitifully few murder mysteries, but I will say this:  Inspector Sejer and Kollberg have won me over in their unassuming ways, and I'll very gladly take another trip into Karin Fossum's imagination.  The armchair travel to Norway doesn't hurt, either. 

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