I recently had to overcome my indecision in trying to choose just one woman writer from the Nordic countries in Norm’s poll at Crime Scraps. (This sure beats voting for political candidates, when I am usually choosing the lesser of evils.) I ultimately chose Karin Fossum, though there are lots of writers in that poll whom I admire greatly. But Fossum is … well, she’s a bit unusual. And while not all of her books work totally for me, they are memorable and often make it to my tops of the year.
Fossum’s books tend to be set in small communities in Norway, where everyone knows one another – or so they think. When a crime is committed, everyone is shocked, but before long you realize there’s a great deal bubbling along under the surface, and the placid belief that things are just fine is challenged on many fronts. This sounds a bit like Cabot Cove or British village cozies, where the thoroughly unpleasant deceased conveniently racks up lots of enemies (so as to provide loads of red herrings) and once the detective has examined the clues and exposed the culprit, the natural order of the peaceful community is restored.
No, Fossum invites you into a peaceful community, peels back the illusion of wholesome goodness, makes you (and the characters themselves) realize that there are a lot of unhealthy situations flourishing under the surface that are actually nourished by everyone eagerly maintaining an illusion of tranquility and decency. She makes us uncomfortable in a quiet and subtle way.
Her series characters, Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre, are the sort of police officers you would want to show up in a crisis because they are patient and good listeners and invariably kind while maintaining a well-calibrated moral compass. They tend not to get excited or act macho and don’t make much of their authority, yet it is indisputably there in it’s pure moral state. They get the job done and restore order.
But we readers aren’t allowed to feel complacent. In the final pages Fossum almost always adds one last ambiguous twist, one touch of uncertainty that leaves you unsettled and uncomfortable. Her purpose is not to confirm that rural Norway is a safe and tranquil place but rather to remind us that a communal agreement to ignore problems is dangerous and all too common.That violence that erupted and was settled by the police is still there, just out of sight.
The first book in the Sejer series, Don’t Look Back, is a masterful and very quiet story that unfolds as the detectives wonder why the girl who was murdered and left beside a lake had grown so moody before her murder. It turns out that she had become aware of an impulsive act of violence that a truly caring community would have prevented, if they weren’t sustaining an illusion of peace through mutually assured indifference. In The Indian Bride, a lonely man who travels to India and finds a wife gets interrupted when he is supposed to meet her at the airport. She is murdered before she can find her way to her new home. It turns into a fascinating exploration of how an isolated community responds to an outsider and the lengths to which her intended husband will go to lie to himself. I was also very impressed by the short novel, The Water’s Edge, which tackles the sensational topic of pedophilia in a very muted and sensitive way while also raising questions about how society in general treats its children. I reviewed it for Mystery Scene and concluded “As Sejer and Skarre probe into the life of the missing child they demonstrate a fundamental law of Fossum’s universe: Nobody is blameless; everyone is capable of cruelty. The author handles the most despicable of crimes with restraint while uncovering the hidden violence of ordinary lives.” I tend not to recommend When the Devil Holds the Candle because I found it so deeply disturbing that I could hardly bear to read it. It’s certainly memorable, though! If you like a chilling bit of psychological suspense, it might be just the thing for you. (Shudder.)
Three somewhat similar women authors . . .
- Ruth Rendell (whose non-series books can be as psychologically acute and as creepy as Fossum; her Wexford novels not so much)
- Karin Alvetgen (a Swedish author who also focuses more on psychological insight than on social critique, though both she and Fossum could earn honorary degrees in social psychology)
- Dorothy B. Hughes (who, I should confess, I haven’t read much – but In a Lonely Place published in 1947 has some of the same psychological creepiness and elaborate but convincing self-deception that Fossum does so well.)