Friday, March 11, 2011

He Who Fears the Wolf, by Karin Fossum

While on a brief trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I bounced back and forth between Flaubert and Fossum.  It was a disorienting combination, but contemporary Norwegian murder made a great foil for 19th-century French foibles.

I wrote last month about the first of Fossum's novels I'd read, Don't Look Back.  I was ready for more of Inspector Konrad Sejer and rural Norway.  He Who Fears the Wolf is the 3rd book in the Sejer series, but only the 2nd to be translated into English.  It was a simpler book than the former in the sense that there were fewer characters and plot threads, but I admired about it the same qualities:  Again Fossum managed to paint a vivid picture of small-town life and behaviours.

As the book opens, a very fat, breathless 12 year-old boy dashes into the local police station to report that he's seen Halldis Horn, an elderly farm-woman, lying dead in her dooryard.  It takes only a moment to see the cause of death:  the blade of her hoe is sunk deeply into her head.  What's more, the boy reported that he'd seen Errki Johrma, the village eccentric recently escaped from the asylum, loitering in the woods nearby.  I looked down at the page count on the Kindle; at the end of 5 pages, we've got the murder victim, the weapon, a witness, and a suspect whose guilt is a foregone conclusion in the mind of everyone who's ever met him.  Motive?  Who needs one?  He's nuts!  Always has been.

Fortunately for Errki (and the readers), Konrad Sejer has never met him and is unwilling to jump to any such conclusions.  I think most small, rural towns anywhere in the world have their Errkis.  He is the boy who has never fit in, who dresses strangely, who hears voices and perhaps converses with them, who has a few family skeletons in the closet, and who tends to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.   He is the definitive scapegoat.  Fossum plays with us throughout the book -- there's plenty to suggest that Errki is the only logical suspect, but Sejer will not take that path of least resistance.  He's forced to look at people who are less bizarre and more likable than Errki.  More normal people, in other words.  And that's the destination to which  Fossum consistently guides her readers:  the place where normal people do horrific things, for reasons that may never be altogether clear.

Dog-lovers' note:  Kollberg, Sejer's Leonberger dog, makes only a brief appearance in this book, but an enticing one.  It's such a great image:  the tall man and his tall dog, both dignified and somber, sharing an apartment in Oslo.  There is a tremendous and detailed description, though, of three tracking Alsatians following a scent trail through the forest.  This woman obviously knows and loves dogs.

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