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Karin Fossum is a well-established writer of crime fiction whose novels have been translated from their original Norwegian into more than 20 languages worldwide. She has won several awards and her Inspector Sejer series, of which this book is the first, has been published in more than thirty countries. (Although the second book in this series was published in England in 2002, and many others from the series have since made the transition, it has taken another ten years for the first to be published here.) This was not an author I had previously heard of but came highly recommended by my reading group.
-- The premise --
Eva is walking by the river with her daughter when she sees a body floating on the surface. Assuring her daughter that she will call the police, Eva steps into the phone booth - and calls someone else entirely.
Inspector Sejer quickly establishes that the dead man, Egil, suffered a violent death six months earlier - just a few days after a local prostitute was murdered. Could there be a connection? If so, what? In the months between these murders and the discovery of the body, both cases have gone cold.
At home, Eva receives a phone call late at night. When the stranger hangs up, she stares fearfully into the dark night. Who called? Why? What does Eva know?
-- My thoughts --
I found the premise interesting, especially the idea of a detective having to pick up a 'cold case' and try to find new clues. It seemed obvious from the blurb that Eva knew more than her daughter did and I was looking forward to finding out exactly how much she knew.
The first few pages are gripping. There is a brief piece of text in italics which works as a prologue and involves a woman running into a dead end. This obviously creates great suspense, especially as the man chasing her is so calm in comparison to the woman's panic. This is followed by a very brief initial chapter in which Detective Sejer leads a bruised and bleeding Eva into an interview room. Again, I felt that this worked well to create suspense and I was keen to read on to find out what happened.
Fossum is clearly more interested in the motives behind these crimes than in the detective work itself. Although Sejer does the necessary re-interviewing of witnesses, and in doing so manages to discover a new angle on the case, the real focus is on the personalities and feelings of the main characters. Eva is intense, burdened with secrets and surprisingly casual about her abandonment by her husband. Her father is lonely and struggles to eat more than porridge without company. Sejer lives a quiet life and occasionally visits his daughter and grandson. He seems to care a lot about the people he communicates with through his work and, in particular, is very kind to Egil's son. Necessarily, this focus on thoughts and feelings rather than dramatic discoveries means that the pace is a little gentle, yet there are sufficient developments for the crime solving to seem suitably brisk. At this point I still found the story quite compelling.
This initial pace is well maintained until around a third of the way through the book, when there is a dramatic shift in the focus of the narration and the reader finds out what actually happened six months ago. This is a slightly unusual and therefore perhaps risky approach for a crime writer to take. It becomes evident to the reader who committed the murders and the only question left becomes why. Gradually, most of the rest of the book answers that question and, in places, it almost becomes an exploration of the life of a prostitute. I was initially surprised by the rather positive spin placed on this 'profession', but this is soon undermined by subsequent events and Fossum does not ultimately endorse the career, even if her detective refuses to condemn it. I was not surprised to learn that Fossum has previously worked with addicts and other vulnerable people; she seems determined to explore the psychology of people who commit crimes, rather than simply condemning them. That said, there is a suitable smattering of villains here to keep the reader's interest.
During this section I didn't feel the same urge to read on, as I thought I knew roughly why the murders had happened (I was right) and didn't feel that interested in knowing the finer details. However, the narration continued to flow in a way that occasionally revealed surprises, and there was enough interest in the way the story was written to keep my interest. There are some tense and dramatic experiences along the way that help to keep suspense high.
The ending is rather melancholy and contained an appropriate twist that I hadn't foreseen but could completely believe in. I liked this as I felt that it made the ending stronger. As the story closes, Sejer is already beginning to work on his next case. Unusually, this does not seem to be intended as a whopping great cliffhanger for the reader to ensure that they buy the next book, but simply as a realistic way of ending this story; a detective will always have work to do. I think the realism was key to my enjoyment of this book, although 'enjoy' almost seems inappropriate: this is quite a dark story and no-one is redeemed.
I was slightly surprised to discover that this was the first book in the series as Fossum does not spend a great deal of time establishing her detective. He has a dead wife, an old dog and spends his weekends at the Aerodrome. For this reason, I had assumed that I had picked up the series midway through. However, Fossum is on record as stating that her detective is really a necessity for the plot rather than necessarily important as a character in his own right. Again, I liked this approach. It means that the crime is the important element of the book, and the psychology of the other characters, and the plot is not overshadowed by the detective's own life.
Fossum is also a published poet and I felt that this has influenced her writing style, which feels very poetic and descriptive, in an understated way. Her characters are very reflective and there is some discussion of the purpose of art and the true meaning of selling oneself. This helped to make the book read more like a literary novel than a simple work of crime fiction and I quite enjoyed the way it was written.
-- Conclusions --
Although the book developed in a way that I hadn't anticipated and became a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit, I quite enjoyed reading this and would be happy to read another book in the series. However, at 314 pages this is a reasonably quick read (the font is large and clear) which means that I would hesitate to pay the RRP of £12.99, especially as this is a paperback book (albeit a sturdy one) rather than a hardback. I felt that this worked well as a standalone book, which I liked, although this could partly be because it was the first in the series.
Read this if:
* You are a fan of Norwegian crime.
* You enjoy a reflective writing style which focuses on characters' thoughts and feelings rather than epic car chases or detailed analysis of forensic clues.
* You like crime novels that focus on the criminals and their motivations rather than delving too deeply into the personal lives of the police officers involved in solving the crime.
Avoid this if:
* You like crime fiction with a lot of suspects and a lot of potential paths.
* You like crime fiction that focuses very firmly on the crime solving rather than on the psyche of the villains and victims.
* You want a main character you can develop a bond with and follow through a crime series to see them develop (although Sejer has his own series, in this book he is certainly a conduit for the action rather than a compelling character in his own right).