I’m three books into Karin Fossum’s Norwegian mystery series, so it’s about time for an assessment. It didn’t take me long to realize that Inspector Konrad Sejer is exceptionally good at his job, rather straight-laced, kind to women and children, and apparently not prone to offending anyone. In fact, I began to worry that he just might be too ‘likeable’ to fit the ‘moody sleuth’ parameters I’ve set for this blog.
But in retrospect, I’ve decided my initial opinion was tainted. I spent too much of the last month with Arnoldur Indridason’s uber-gloomy Detective Erlendur, and even the Grinch would seem imminently more likeable by comparison.
In this post, I’ve tried to separate my admiration for Fossum’s obvious talent for building believable plots full of wicked red herrings and startling reversals, from how she’s developed Inspector Sejer’s character.
As for Sejer’s positive traits, he’s a fit fifty, tall and angular, has slate grey eyes and short steely grey hair that he has a habit of running his fingers through. He owns a dog, a very large but friendly Leonberger. He enjoys a good relationship with his grown daughter, her husband and their adopted son.
Slightly stuffy, he’s been described as ‘abstemious’ in that he carries a modest bag lunch to work and restricts himself to a single glass of whiskey and one hand-rolled cigarette each evening after work. He drives a large blue Peugeot 604, slowly, we’re told, which invariably annoys anyone who gets stuck behind him on the road.
To reassure us that he’s not too stuffy, Fossum has given Sejer the unlikely leisure-time activity of sky-diving, but only when conditions are perfect, and never in groups. One afternoon when a younger man going up in the same plane asks if Sejer would like to join him and his friends in a formation jump, Sejer responds:
‘I’ll think about it,’ he said dryly. ‘But I can hold hands on the ground. One of the things I like up there,’ he said nodding skywards, ‘is the loneliness. And up there it’s really immense. You’ll understand that kind of thing when you’re older.’
Formation jumping was about as popular with Sejer as synchronised swimming.
Since the sadder aspects of a protagonist’s life are more a measure of a ‘moody sleuth,’ I have noted that Inspector Sejer has a qualifying quotient of these:
- he is a widower, his much-loved wife died of cancer several years ago, leaving a huge hole in his life that he’s not quite ready to address.
- his mother is confined to a care facility suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and Sejer’s bi-weekly visits leave him depressed for hours.
- he suffers from either eczema or psoriasis, the state of which might be an indicator of stress levels.
Keeping these in mind, let’s get to the books.
Book I – In the Darkness
Though first published in 1995, the first book in Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series wasn’t translated until this year, and since I didn’t catch the Euro-crime bug until recently, I consider it fortuitous that I’ve been able to read the series in order.
“In the Darkness” begins with a short first chapter of less than 500 words in which Inspector Konrad Sejer enters the police station escorting a woman who “looked as if she’d been in the wars, her chin was grazed, her coat and skirt were torn, her mouth bleeding.” As Sejer prepares to interview the woman, we learn that her name is Eva Marie Magnus.
The next chapter shifts us to another time and place. Eva Magnus is walking with her young daughter Emma along a riverside path when they discover a man’s body floating in the water. Eva’s reaction and subsequent behavior are decidedly suspicious. Telling her daughter she is calling the police, she goes to a phone-box and instead calls her father (mobile phones were not yet in common use).
Inspector Sejer is on the case, but unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t take over the story; in fact, twenty-one of the thirty-five chapters in this book are from Eva Magnus’ perspective, revealing events that occurred over the six or seven months prior to the discovery of the body in the river. Eva’s character drives the story; her psychological state is explored in much greater depth than Sejer’s.
This book was originally published in Norway as “Evas øye”or “Eva’s Eye” which to me seems far more apt a title than the translation’s “In the Darkness.”
Sharply contrasting Eva’s chapters, which are fraught with psychological suspense, Sejer’s chapters focus on the investigation, his intelligent use of observation, reasoning and intuitive understanding of human nature, and how he applies these strengths in unraveling mysteries and solving crimes. His personal life rarely intrudes, but here and there we get insights into his character and beliefs.
- In Chapter six, Sejer and a colleague, Karlsen, sit together at the station eating lunch: “For a while they ate in silence. They were men who had a great respect for one another, in a tacit way. They didn’t make a fuss about it, but they shared a decided mutual sympathy which they exercised with patience. Karlsen was ten years younger and had a wife who needed humouring. So Sejer kept in the background, in the certainty that the man had enough with his family, something he regarded as a sacred institution.”
- In Chapter eight, at home after work, he heats up a ready-made soup from the freezer: “In the old days, hunger had been a stimulating pang in his stomach, which sometimes grew into a wild anticipation of what Elise might have waiting in her saucepans. Now it was more of a growling dog which he threw a biscuit to, when it got really noisy.”
- In Chapter ten, when something else reminds of his late wife, Elise: “A huge sorrow overwhelmed him, and he had to blink hard to stop it gaining the upper hand. He hadn’t time for that, not now at any rate.”
Inspector Konrad Sejer may not be the brooding detective encountered in so many popular crime novels, but these instances demonstrate his melancholy side.
Two chapters before Sejer closes the case, we get a teaser introducing the next book: Sejer’s colleague, Karlsen, informs him that a six-year-old girl has gone missing in a small community not far fromOslo. This will be their next case.
“… Sejer chewed his nail as he felt an incipient nervousness grow in his stomach.
He didn’t like it when six-year-old girls failed to arrive home when expected. Even though he knew there could be lots of reasons for it. Everything from divorced fathers demonstrating proprietorial rights, to homeless puppies that needed coaxing back home, or thoughtless older children who took them out without letting anyone know. Sometimes the kids were asleep in some bush or other, thumb in mouth. Not so many six-year-olds perhaps, but it had certainly happened with two- and three-year-olds. Sometimes they simply got lost, and wandered around hour after hour. Some began to bawl immediately, and got picked up. Others kept walking, speechless with fear without attracting notice. At least the roads were quiet at eight o’clock in the morning, he thought, and felt easier.”
Book II – Don’t Look Back
This story gets off to an ominous start with a six-year-old girl, Ragnhild, accepting a ride from an odd young man in a rusty white van. As the little girl chats animatedly with her new friend the scene shifts ahead to Sejer and his colleague, Karlsen, arriving in the community where the child has been reported missing.
Apart from giving directions, the two policemen didn’t talk much. They approached the house, trying to steel themselves, thinking that perhaps the child might even be back home by now. Perhaps she was sitting on her mother’s lap, surprised and embarrassed at all the fuss. It was 1 p.m., so the girl had been missing for five hours. Two would have been within a reasonable margin, five was definitely too long. Their unease was growing steadily, like a dead spot in the chest where the blood refused to flow. Both of them had children of their own; Karlsen’s daughter was eight, Sejer had a grandson of four. The silence was filled with images, which might turn out to be correct – this was what struck Sejer as they drew up in front of the house.
For fans of police procedurals, the next few pages satisfyingly illustrate Sejer’s investigative technique as he first questions the child’s mother and then a neighbour who met Ragnhild as he was leaving for work that morning. Sejer asks if the neighbour passed any vehicles on his way to the village.
The man was silent for a moment. Sejer waited. The room was as quiet as a tomb.
“Yes, actually, I did pass one, down by the flats, just before the roundabout. A van, I think, ugly and with peeling paint. Driving quite slowly.”
“Who was driving it?”
“A man,” he said hesitantly. “One man.”
“My name is Raymond.” He smiled.
Ragnhild looked up, saw the smiling face in the mirror, and Kollen Mountain bathed in the morning light.
The transition here delighted me. With barely a pause, just as the neighbour recalls seeing the van, the reader is suddenly in the van with Ragnhild.
During Seger’s questioning of Ragnhild’s mother, within the lines of queries and answers, Fossum deftly interjects brief sentences that add to our sense of dread as well as subtly suggest Sejer’s internal response to the mother’s replies.
“Does she have brothers or sisters?”
“She’s our only child.”
He tried to breathe without making a sound.
And a few lines later:
“Tell me,” he said… “where do the children in this village go walking?”
“Down to the fjord. To Prestegårds Strand or to Horgen. Or to the top of Kollen. Some go up to the reservoir, or they go walking in the woods.”
He looked out the window and saw the black firs.
I’m also delighted by how Fossum skillfully draws us in, convincing us that this is going to be a particular kind of story… then suddenly throws our expectations for a loop, revealing that it is something else entirely.
Fossum keeps the tension high as Sejer and his colleagues interview and re-interview almost everyone in the village, garnering bits of information, exposing red herrings, uncovering people’s secrets, slowly fitting the pieces together like a complex and frustrating puzzle.
And speaking of puzzles, I’ve read a fair number of online reviews of “Don’t Look Back” and I’m a little puzzled to find only one reviewer who commented on the heart-stopping twist on the last page of this book. Fossum catches us unaware, again. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s read, but I do want to point this out to make sure you don’t miss a prime example of how artfully Karin Fossum uses her skills.
I must stop here! “He Who Fears The Wolf” will have wait till next time. Night.