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don't look back

11 july 2013

Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back is a fine novel as well as an absorbing Krimi. The characters are offbeat and individual, and the crime well-hidden, surrounded by secrets. The murder at the center lies at the intersection of several bad marriages: as if to say, one such relationship could be sufferable; several must amplify one another's effects unto death.

Another theme that pervades Don't Look Back is the endangering of children. The novel begins and with the abduction of a child, and quickly proceeds to the murder of a teenager. A teenager who'd been an abused child helps solve the murder of the dead teenager by uncovering the gruesomely negligent death of a toddler. It's a wonder anyone in this fictional universe has survived to adulthood; and indeed, hardly any of them lack deep scars.

Konrad Sejer, the detective at the heart of this novel (and of the subsequent series), is widowed, in perpetual midlife crisis, on uncertain terms with his own daughter, prone to drink and rumination: he's the standard-issue Scandinavian police inspector. Yet his appeal, which has separated him slightly if noticeably from the pack of his peers, is that we don't know much about him. He's reserved, under control, short with people. He condescends to his subordinates (like the longsuffering Jacob Skarre, his sidekick), but also puts up with a lot from them and wins their respect in return.

In Don't Look Back, the victim and suspects come from a small community nestled in a larger one. (The setting is not entirely clear to me, perhaps lost in translation: it would seem to be somewhere in metropolitan Oslo, but at one point (113) Skarre and Sejer have to drive into Oslo, so they're not right in the heart of the city.) The limited range of suspects is a feature of some cozy-country mysteries, and the police procedure consists mainly of asking them questions over and over till things no longer add up. (One breakthrough comes when a teenager cracks a computer password; but wryly enough, Fossum doesn't make use of the cliché that all teenagers are born hackers; the young man simply calls up tech support and pays a hefty fee.)

In other words, we're not on the mean streets; but the characters are still alienated and deeply secretive. It's a world that drains its characters of energy, and we admire Sejer for his reserves.

Fossum, Karin. Don't Look Back. [Se deg ikke tilbake!, 2002.] Translated by Felicity David, 2002. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.