Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum

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Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: If you like police-procedural novels then you'll love this book, which is a translation from the original Norwegian. It's well-written with good characterisation but could be set anywhere in Europe.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: July 2003
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0099452138

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In a sleepy village at the foot of a Norwegian mountain a child goes missing and the search for her reveals the naked body of a well-liked local schoolgirl. Why would anyone want to murder Annie Holland? The investigation is in the hands of Inspector Konrad Sejer and his young colleague Jacob Skarre. Together they needle the local community, unearthing secrets and skeletons their owners thought safely locked in cupboards.

This is a book for the fan of police-procedural novels - if you don't like them don't bother with the book as there's little else to it. We watch the investigation right through from the initial discovery of the body and the work at the scene of the murder. It's vividly described but without any unnecessarily gory details. It's then down to the interviewing and re-interviewing of all those with even the flimsiest connection with Annie Holland and her family. There's skill in the interviewing and a certain ruthlessness that doesn't care about the subsequent problems for those that are interviewed.

This might sound boring, but it's not. Karin Fossum began her writing career as a poet and the skill and care behind her writing is obvious even in translation. The writing is elegant and compelling - it's a book that's been crafted rather than written - and puts me in mind of Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels. We get simple sentence construction and appropriate vocabulary. I don't think there's an unnecessary word in the book. So far as the translation itself goes, Felicity David has done a good job, even allowing for the fact that there are a few occasions when dialogue is a little stilted.

The plot is simple and straight-forward and although the murderer might not have been someone who lived in the village there's enough evidence to suggest that it's one of a limited number of people. The characters of the villagers are all well-developed and balanced. There's no one who is wholly good or bad and they all have plenty of background. It's also a plot with plenty of red herrings.

Something I did like is that the character, the personality, of Inspector Sejer didn't intrude too much into the book. We know that he's old enough to be a grandfather, is tall with greying hair, owns a dog and is a widower. There isn't really a great deal more than that. This is a book about an investigation rather than about the investigator as so many detective stories are. This book is part of a series, so I suspect that I'd know more of Sejer if I'd read more of the books. It's a little difficult to establish exactly where this book comes in the series - I think it's the fifth novel - as not all of them have been translated into English. There are no spoilers for earlier novels and no references to other cases.

I did guess "whodunit" before the end of the book, but that wasn't necessarily a disadvantage as there came a point when the book was not so much about who, but about how the murderer would be apprehended. There's a twist at the end of the story which will leave you feeling as though you've had a bucket of cold water thrown over you.

I came to Karin Fossum via Henning Mankell. Liking his Inspector Kurt Wallander novels ( Faceless Killers, The Dogs of Riga and The Fifth Woman) I thought I'd have a look at other Scandinavian authors of crime fiction. I enjoy Mankell, but I think Fossum is the better writer, particularly of police procedural novels. Mankell has a habit of slipping into melodrama which Fossum avoids and the character of Wallander intrudes far more than I like.

There is one area where I feel that Fossum is not as good as Mankell and that's in depiction of place. The Wallander stories are set in a specific area of Sweden. The landscape, the weather are all very much a part of the story. You really couldn't be anywhere else. Fossum's books are set in Norway but even allowing for the occasional reference to a fjord they really could be anywhere - certainly anywhere in Europe. Given such a dramatic landscape and distinctive climate it does seem a pity not to take advantage of it.

The book is recommended to anyone who likes police-procedural novels. Given that the subject is murder, violence does come into the book, but not to the point of being frightening. There are occasional sexual references but no explicitly sexual scenes.

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Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer novels in chronological order


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