Sunday, October 17, 2010

Below Norway’s Surface: Two of Karin Fossum’s Sejer Books

I enjoy detective novels and love Scandinavia so was thrilled to find a neat stack of Norwegian and Swedish detective novels at the library book sale. Among them: four of Karin Fossum’s books featuring criminal investigator Konrad Sejer. Last week I read Don’t Look Back and When the Devil Holds the Candle.

I think I enjoy reading detective novels from other cultures because I like hunting for insights into other countries’ fears. Though these two Fossum books are quite different stylistically, they have a common motif: physical and psychological problems and imperfections that lie below the facades of our skin, clothes, and homes. A blurb from The New York Times Book Review about Don’t Look Back put it this way: “There’s no mistaking this psychologically astute, subtly horrifying crime study for a cozy village mystery.” Indeed! Both these books are set in the clean, orderly Norway I remember from visits, and Don’t Look Back mentions Legoland, cod sprats, Vigeland Sculpture Park, and Sigrid Undset. But Fossum’s books definitely aren’t advertising the beauty of Norwegian fjords...

Don’t Look Back starts off as if it’s a book about a kidnapping: Raymond, a young man with Down syndrome, picks up a small girl and takes her to his house. He brings her home unharmed but she and Raymond saw a teenage girl’s corpse during a walk. Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre investigate. Socially, Sejer is a fairly typical criminal inspector: he’s a somewhat lonely widower whose large dog keeps him company. He adores his little grandson.

Fossum excels at showing sinister currents beneath the town’s quiet surface: a strange neighbor who sleeps in a quirky bed, an odd rug salesman, and the sad family histories of the dead girl and her boyfriend. It’s very telling – both for Sejer, in solving the case, and for the reader interested in local mores – that the dead girl learned something unpleasant by looking through a neighbor’s window. There’s peeping though real and metaphorical windows in When the Devil Holds the Candle, too, but it’s a very different type of novel: we know from the book’s early chapters what happened to a missing man named Andreas.

The good-looking Andreas, who sometimes works as a nude model for a local artist, and his friend Zipp (for the zipper on his tight jeans) are petty criminals who’ve barely grown out of the “juvenile” category. Their trouble starts when they need beer money and steal the purse of a woman pushing a baby carriage. That crime goes bad, as does an attempt to rob an older woman in her home; Andreas disappears. The reader knows where Andreas is, thanks to a first-person narrative delivered by a disturbed mind, but many of the characters have no clue.

I write “many of the characters” because Fossum shows us several critical lapses: one belongs to the police and Zipp, of course, is terrified to say much about the evening’s events because he doesn’t want to get into trouble himself. Plus he has strange feelings about something he learned from Andreas. Meanwhile, Sejer has doubts about his girlfriend, Sara, because he keeps thinking he smells hashish in his own apartment.

When the Devil Holds the Candle is oddly suspenseful, thanks to Fossum’s characters’ psychological depth and her gradual presentation of events. The contrast of the book’s parallel lines – Skarre and Sejer’s investigation, plus the inner thoughts of the crimes’ perpetrators – give the reader a feel for both police work and the (fictional) criminal mind. For me, the thoughts of criminals who control life and death are the ultimate mystery in detective novels, so I enjoyed watching how the guilty parties reacted when confronted with their own crimes. Another interesting plus: nobody is infallible here, and Fossum may let characters in both books get away with murder. Fossum’s books left me with the feeling I’d witnessed a silent scream: they leave an impression more similar to dark Edvard Munch paintings than Norwegian tourist brochures with lovely photos of sunny fjords.

Up next: I don’t know!

Satellite image of Norway, from NASA, via Wikipedia.

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