SOMETHING NEW: Don’t Look Back and He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum — October 2015

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

I’m only halfway through Karin Fossum’s third mystery novel, He Who Fears the Wolf, (I read the second one, Don’t Look Back, a few days ago), but I can tell you there’s a new star on the horizon, and Karin Fossum is her name. Rima Walker, who has read deeply in the field of Scandinavian crime fiction, told me about Fossum, lent me the books, and remarked that this author gets better with each succeeding novel. Rima is right. If you like Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, if you’ve ever been a fan of the Sjovall-Wahloo series, and will read Jo Nesbo in a pinch, then this woman is for you. Her books will keep you up all night; they’re meticulously plotted, extremely well written, have characters you won’t forget, and a world view that is icy, strange, and yet somehow entirely humane.Picture6

The first novel I read, Don’t Look Back (the second in the series), starts with a bluff. You think you know where you’re going, but suddenly it veers off in a different, and entirely satisfactory, direction, only to return to the initial premise, chillingly, at the very end. The author likes to pull the rug out from under you in various ways, to keep you guessing, not just about “who done it,” but about the nature of her characters and of the universe we live in. She likes people who are not normal and situations that are bizarre. She believes that normalcy is either a façade or else a very boring way to be. Don’t Look Back features a character with Down Syndrome, a disturbed, hyperactive child, and a teenager severely damaged by his upbringing who lives with and cares for his grandmother.

Her detective, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, by comparison, seems fairly dull at first; she keeps his profile low. A man of about fifty, a widower, tall, gray-haired, with a commanding presence, he’s good at his work, conscientious and persistent, sympathetic to the people he encounters, self-controlled, and intolerant of incompetence in others. But at this point, Fossum is only getting started where the Inspector is concerned. In He Who Fears the Wolf, Konrad starts to lose his cool and show his weaknesses, becoming more vulnerable and appealing; my guess is, he’s going to get even more interesting later on.

He Who Fears the Wolf outdoes its predecessor in most respects. The characters are more unusual–a schizophrenic young escapee from a psychiatric institute, one of the most brilliant and daring characters I’ve run across in a work of fiction: a lonely, manipulative fat boy from a juvenile detention center, a burglar who pulls off a big job but hasn’t a clue what to do next, and a psychiatrist, the lovely Dr. Struel, who truly cares for her patients and shares to some extent their alienation from this world. I found her description of the origin of psychosis fascinating and convincing. The first time Sejer meets Dr. Struel she declares, “All of the interesting people in the world are losers,” and readily admits that deep down she is full of despair. “Full of despair? You?” Sejer asks. And she replies, “Aren’t you?”I

Her detective, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, by comparison, seems fairly dull at first; she keeps his profile low. A man of about fifty, a widower, tall, gray-haired, with a commanding presence, he’s good at his work, conscientious and persistent, sympathetic to the people he encounters, self-controlled, and intolerant of incompetence in others. But at this point, Fossum is only getting started where the Inspector is concerned. In He Who Fears the Wolf, Konrad starts to lose his cool and show his weaknesses, becoming more vulnerable and appealing; my guess is, he’s going to get even more interesting later on.

He Who Fears the Wolf outdoes its predecessor in most respects. The characters are more unusual–a schizophrenic young escapee from a psychiatric institute, one of the most brilliant and daring characters I’ve run across in a work of fiction: a lonely, manipulative fat boy from a juvenile detention center, a burglar who pulls off a big job but hasn’t a clue what to do next, and a psychiatrist, the lovely Dr. Struel, who truly cares for her patients and shares to some extent their alienation from this world. I found her description of the origin of psychosis fascinating and convincing. The first time Sejer meets Dr. Struel she declares, “All of the interesting people in the world are losers,” and readily admits that deep down she is full of despair. “Full of despair? You?” Sejer asks. And she replies, “Aren’t you?”

This is the kind of edgy writing you can expect from Fossum, whose fiction has won many awards, internationally. Luckily for her readers, there are twelve books in the Inspector Sejer series. The first appeared (in Norwegian) in 1995, the second, Don’t Look Back, in 1996, and He Who Fears the Wolf the following year, though they weren’t translated into English until several years later. The most recent novel available in translation is The Drowned Boy, which came out in 2015. One of the novels, translated as The Indian Bride, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Fossum has published two volumes of poetry, two volumes of short fiction, two regular novels, and a number of other works as well. I suspect you can jump into her mystery novels wherever you like and not be disappointed. Her picture in Wikipedia shows a person who resembles the character of Dr. Struel, as Sejer describes her to us in He Who Fears the Wolf. I like to imagine that it is her. I, for one, am going to find out by reading more of her books, for, as V. S. Naipaul has said, fiction never lies. ~