Karin Fossum

Konrad Sejer -Inspector, small village in Norway


"The Indian Bride"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte DEC 30, 2007)

Gunder Jomann is a kind-hearted, somewhat slow, 51-year-old bachelor who sells agricultural implements in the sleepy Norwegian town of Elvestad. He spends a lot of his free time flipping through the pages of a present his sister, Marie gave him: a book called People of All Nations. Jomann is fascinated by India—particularly by Indian women with “their painted eyes, their flirtatious smiles.” On an impulse, he sets off for Mumbai on a mission to find himself an Indian bride. And find one he does. Jomann marries Poona Bai, a waitress at a restaurant close to his hotel.

Norwegian author Karin Fossum does a beautiful job of detailing the tender romance between Jomann and Poona and in making what seems at first shot to be an improbable union, totally believable.

When Jomann returns to Norway, he leaves his new bride Poona behind in India and she assures him she will follow after tying up all loose ends in Mumbai. She sticks to her word and Jomann excitedly counts down to the time when he will get to meet his new bride again and welcome her to her new home. But life has other plans. Just as Jomann has to leave for the airport, he gets a call that his sister has met with a dangerous accident. Torn between rushing to his sister’s side and meeting his new bride at the airport, Jomann finally entrusts the local town cabbie to pick up Poona.

But Poona is nowhere to be found at the airport. As Jomann tensely wonders what has happened to his wife, she is found brutally murdered the next morning—in a meadow close to the center of town. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his deputy Jacob Skarre take over the investigation and chase down various clues and suspects. Could it be Einar Sunde, the owner of the only café in town; Anders Kolding, another cab driver who drove her into town from the airport; or Goran Seter, a young narcissist whose gym-going obsession and short temper make him an easy suspect. 

Fossum, a writer who herself is based in Southeast Norway, paints a beautiful picture of the sleepy town of Elvestad and its residents. As the hunt for the killer intensifies, secrets get drawn out and gossip and suspicion are thrown around. “It felt as if their community had been taken over,” Fossum writes, “All the while life went on but in a new light. So they took more notice than they used to, as if they were seeing everything for the first time.”

Fossum’s loving attention to her characters makes the book more than a readable whodunit. By focusing on the emotional insecurities of many of the characters, The Indian Bride also works as a psychological thriller. Most expertly done is the gradual unraveling of a witness Linda Carling who becomes dangerously obsessed with Sejer’s young partner, Skarre. And just as Sejer plays on the emotions of the suspects he lines up, Fossum too throws us a slightly curved ball in the end leaving readers to wonder if indeed all ends have been neatly tied up.

A small aside: While the book is certainly an extremely engaging detective story, a couple of aspects did bother me because they indicated inaccurate research. First, both Gunder Jomann and his sister Marie, talk about Indian “dragons” a lot, about how Poona would come home and decorate his Norwegian home with pictures of dragons. Indians don’t do dragons. India is not China and dragons are not cultural motifs in the country. Second, the name Poona Bai. While there are many, many women’s names in India, Poona is rarely one. Poona is the Anglicized name of Pune, a city in Maharashtra state in India. Poonam works for an Indian woman’s name, but not Poona. Also Fossum puts the victim’s name down as Poona Bai using Bai as a last name. Bai is actually only an appellation like Mrs. This becomes even more awkward when Poona’s brother, Shiraz, is referred to as Shiraz Bai.

But these details did not prevent me from wholeheartedly enjoying the book. The Indian Bride makes not just for a good mystery but also by shedding light on the various shades of humanity, Fossum steps beyond the genre and makes the book a very moving read.

It is especially sad that someone who believed in the essential goodness of all humanity would have his life so senselessly and randomly torn apart by its darkest elements. Jomann was right: People of All Nations do have much in common—both in their shared dreams and loves, and sadly also in their darkest depravity. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 61 reviews

 

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"When the Devil Holds the Candle"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 5, 2007)

"The God that I don't believe in knows that I've seen Andreas.  I think back to that terrifying moment when I felt it coming—the desire to destroy him.  At the same instant I saw my own face reflected in a windowpane. And I remember the feeling, a sweet pressure, like warm oil running through my body.  The certainty that this was evil.  My face in the bluish glass: the hideous, evil person you become when the Devil holds the candle."—Irma Funder

The undisputed queen of psychological horror, Norwegian author Karin Fossum takes an up-close view of three deaths in this novel in which Evil even touches Inspector Konrad Sejer's own family.  Andreas Winther, a handsome 18-year-old of little motivation and less morality, is cruising with his friend Zipp Skorpe when they decide to taunt a small brown boy.  The boy is Sejer's adopted grandson Mattheus, a Somali immigrant who is trying to fit into the alien Norwegian society.  The fact that these almost-adults would torment a child establishes their arrogance and their attitude of being above the rules which govern established society.  Though the reader can empathize with some of their feelings of alienation and powerlessness, the author ensures that they will never be characters with whom the reader will identify as she deals with the broader issues and themes which these characters inspire.

Bored at the lack of response they get from Mattheus, Andreas and Zipp then decide to rob a young woman pushing a baby stroller, and later on to rob a house in which an old woman lives alone.  It gives away nothing to say that the baby ends up dead, and Andreas ends up missing--and eventually dead.  An acquaintance named Robert, taunted by his girlfriend Anita, who has been flirting with one of Robert's friends, is driven to distraction, shoots at the friend, and kills Anita. 

Each of these deaths is examined in minute detail from the perspective of the killer and sometimes the victims, and the question of responsibility and the extent to which the killer intended to kill are considered from many angles.  The question of justice, as defined by society, is less important here than the inner thoughts of the characters, who come to life with all their problems and psychological needs.  For Fossum, Evil is very real, and the Devil has the power to take over and manipulate individuals for his own ends. "We encounter the Devil all the time," Sejer's assistant, Jacob Skarre, comments.  "The question is, how do we handle him?"

For each of the three deaths, there are mitigating factors.  Robert, Anita's killer, is regarded by the police as "a good person," a person who is suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to protect his relationship with Anita, a man who, having found happiness with Anita cannot imagine looking for and finding a new partner.  Irma Funder, the 60-year-old woman whom Andreas intended to rob, finds herself caring for Andreas for many days after he is injured in her house—and even going to the police for help—but she is unable or unwilling to be specific about what has happened and what she wants the police to do.   She enjoys her new feeling of "living in the moment.  Finally, a sort of peace."  Andreas needs her, and, though her life has had few satisfactions, she in charge now.  As for the baby, his death could be crib death, it could be the result of the fall that took place when Andreas and Zipp were robbing his mother, and it could be the mother's fault for letting go of the carriage, leading to the baby's fall.

As Fossum pursues her themes and illustrates them vividly through her carefully drawn characters, the book becomes a powerful investigation of evil and its ability to seize and control lives.  No one, however terrible his/her crime, is completely evil here, but, as Fossum shows, the justice system can only deal with issues that are black and white.  When "justice" eventually concludes each of these cases, few readers will be surprised by the resolution.  By turns exciting and thoughtful, dramatic and contemplative, When the Devil Holds the Candle is a fine novel dealing with important themes in new ways.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews

 

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"He Who Fears the Wolf"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 5, 2007)

"He who fears the wolf shouldn't go into the forest."

From the dramatic opening paragraphs, in which a person believes that his face is sliding off and his insides are falling out, Fossum captures the bizarre inner worlds of several characters barely holding onto their sanity.  Errki Johrma, a 24-year-old who has been committed to a residential lockup for the disturbed, escapes the residence in rural Norway and seeks solitude in the woods.  There he sees an elderly woman, Halldis Horn, working outside her cabin. 

Suddenly the point of view shifts, and a 12-year-old boy, Kannick Snellingen, runs into the police station saying that Halldis is dead, with a hoe embedded in her face, and that he has seen Errki lurking nearby.  Kannick, like Errki, is also disturbed, living in a home for children with behavioral problems.  A sudden shift to the next morning, and Detective Inspector Konrad Sejer, after noting a strange person entering the bank, soon hears a gunshot and learns that it has been robbed, a hostage taken--Errki. 

The intersecting worlds of Errki, the robber (known as Morgan), Kannick Snellingen, and Inspector Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Scarre, create a fascinating series of psychological portraits and interactions.  Morgan and Errki, hiding out together in an abandoned cabin, try to avoid the police and stay alive, remaining wary of each other but starting to communicate about the voices Errki hears from The Coat and a spirit named Nestor.  Kannick, who wants to become a national archery champ, wallows in the attention he gets from his peers at the home, describing the gory condition of Halldis's body in exchange for candy.  At the same time, Sejer, a widower for eleven years, confers with Errki's psychiatrist in order to understand Errki more fully, and finds himself powerfully drawn to her as he tries to solve Halldis's murder and the robbery of the bank by apprehending Errki and Morgan. 

Developing the story in clean, straightforward prose, Fossum reveals the disturbing thoughts of Errki, Morgan, and Kannick, along with their traumatic backgrounds, stories which need no additional melodrama.  As the reader comes to know the characters and feel empathy with them, she creates fine dramatic tension and a suspense-filled story in which nothing is as it appears to be.  Occasionally, the ironies are leavened with dark humor.  A climactic meeting involving all the major characters leads to a full resolution and, ultimately, a greater understanding of the characters' interior worlds. Fascinating, well-drawn, and concise, this novel, the third in the Inspector Sejer series, is a psychological mystery of the first order, filled with intriguing characters and unusual plot twists. 
  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews

 

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"Don't Look Back"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross FEB 5, 2007)

"Sejer went first, wiping his shoes carefully on the mat, and ducking his head as he entered the living room. It took them only a second to see what was happening. She was still missing, and the panic was palpable. On the sofa sat the mother, a stocky woman in a gingham dress. Next to her, with a hand on the mother's arm, sat a woman officer. Sejer could almost smell the terror in the room. The mother was using what little strength she had to hold back her tears, or perhaps even a piercing shriek of horror. The slightest effort made her breathe hard, as was evident when she stood up to shake hands with Sejer."

After being widely translated in Europe, it's about time that Fossum's excellent police procedurals are becoming available in English. Unfortunately this first book in translation is not the first in the series, and so a bit of the background is lacking. The story starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a small Norwegian village, but adroitly segues into a murder investigation as the search for the girl turns up an unrelated naked corpse. The town is one of several small communities served by the city police, and grizzled Inspector Sejer and his younger partner Skarre are assigned to the case.

This is above all a psychological mystery, as Sejer and Skarre carefully poke and prod the small community, where everyone knows everyone else, in order to unravel the tale that led to the killing of a well-liked teenage girl. Although the townspeople have plenty of skeletons in their closets, the story never strays into cliché, as it might have under a less assured hand. Sejer is a placid and cunning detective of late middle age, living alone with his dog after being widowed (again, one senses that his personal life has been detailed in previous books). He bears a certain similarity to Det. Inspector Charlie Resnick, the protagonist of John Harvey's long-running Nottingham procedural series. Skarre works well as his younger, more informal partner, slightly treading on eggshells around his more experienced superior.

With no forensic evidence, no witnesses, and no apparent motive, there's little for them to go on. Thus, Sejer and Skarre spend the whole novel interviewing and reinterviewing everyone who knew the girl and might have seen something. As the tension builds, and various red herrings are dispensed with, Sejer grows convinced that the key to the murder lies in an abrupt change in the girl's behavior almost a year previously. This leads seamlessly to yet another layer within the story. Throughout, every character comes to life, and sometimes, the story shift to their perspective for several pages to add a richer depth to the unfolding investigation. Norway never really emerges as a distinct setting, it's a story that really could have been set in any small town in the first world, but it's an absorbing tale, which ends with a potentially unsettling coda.

By the way, Danish television produced a four-hour miniseries from the book under the title "Se Deg Ikke Tilbake." With luck, it might be subtitled in English at some point...

  • Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews

 



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Inspector Sejer & Inspector Jakob Skarre Series:

Other:

  • The House of the Insane (1999)
  • The Nightmare of November 4th (2004)
  • Broken (2006; August 2010 in US)
  • The House of Fools (2008)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Karen FossumKaren Fossum was born in 1954 in Sandefjord, Norway.

Fossum was initially a poet, with her first collection published in 1974 when she was just 20. It won the Tarjei Vesaas' Debutant Prize. The successful Inspector Conrad Sejer series of crime novels, which have been translated into over 16 languages. She won the Glass key award for her novel Don't Look Back, which also won the Riverton Prize, and she was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 2005 for Calling Out For You (aka The Indian Bride in the US).

She lives in Oslo, Norway.

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