Publication date: 3rd July 2003 (paperback, translation)
I’ve read lots of Scandinavian crime fiction in the last couple of years – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg and Yrsa Sigurdardottir to name a few – but Karin Fossum had passed me by until recently. Don’t Look Back is the first of her novels to be translated into English, although it is her second novel featuring Inspector Sejer, and it won the Glass Key Award in 1997 for Nordic crime writing.
Set in a small town north of Oslo, at the foot of Kollen Mountain, the novel starts with a terrifying scenario – six-year old Ragnhild accepts a lift home from a strange man who promises to show her th baby rabbits at his house. Soon the police are with the girl’s distraught parents, when she arrives home, unharmed. The release of tension when she turns up is immense, only to be shattered a few pages later when Inspector Sejer gets a phone call about a dead body that was found lying by the lake by the search party hunting for Ragnhild.
The dead girl, fifteen-year old Annie Holland, also lived with her parents in the town. A promising athlete and good student who regularly babysat for some of the town’s younger children, she seemed on good terms with everyone who knew her, although she has been withdrawn for her last few months. Initially there are few clues and, as with many small towns, everyone thinks that they know each other, but Sejer and his young assistant Jacob Skarre start to uncover the many secrets and tensions brewing under the seemingly calm surface of the community.
This is definitely a book for fans of the police procedural, and maybe not one for lovers of frenetic action and dramatic chases. Sejer and Skarre painstakingly interview Annie’s friends and neighbours, slowly gathering evidence about her murder, and several suspects emerge as they talk to people. Can Annie’s ex-handball coach explain why she quit the team so suddenly? Why What is Annie’s backpack doing in her on/off boyfriend’s shed? What is Annie’s mother’s first husband hiding? Annie’s death is not the only crime to have taken place in the town of Granittveien.
I really enjoyed Don’t Look Back, despite its pace being a little slower. This pace actually suits Fossum’s wonderful inspector, Konrad Sejer, who is steady, intelligent and thoughtful without being boring. He has recently been widowed and missed his late wife terribly, lives alone except for his dog, and has a grown-up daughter and a grandson, Matteus, of whom he is very fond. I was afraid that starting with the second book in the series might mean that it would be hard to get a sense of his character but Fossum is very good at small details which make her characters come alive and I get the sense that we will learn a little more about Sejer, and Skarre, with each novel.
Fossum’s excellent characterisation is also used to convey the devastation caused by Annie’s death. Her family are very well drawn, from her superficial and rather stupid elder half-sister to her rather hideous mother, but it is her father whose reaction to her death is the most upsetting. As with Susan Hill’s portrait of grieving parents in The Pure in Heart, Fossum has created a compelling and heart-rending picture of a distraught father who is struggling to deal with the loss of his child and the changed dynamic of his family.
If you want an excellently-written detective novel with elegant writing and clever characterisation, I would recommend Don’t Look Back. Don’t expect a cheerful read though – there is a quiet sense of sadness that pervades the whole book, though, and the ending is as chilling as that of Gordon Reece’s Mice. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Fossum’s writing, starting with the first in the Sejer series, In the Darkness, which was published in July.