Writers in-depth: Karin Fossum, Norway’s reigning Queen of Crime

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Book cover of "Don't Look Back" by Karin Fossum

The Nordic countries have produced a staggering number of outstanding crime writers, whose novels continue to be translated into English and published in the U.K. and the U.S. It is hard to keep up with this steady flow of well-written books with intriguing plots.

If I had to select a favorite among this rich array of writers, my choice would most likely be Karin Fossum, Norway’s Queen of Crime. Although she does have rivals for this title, she seems not to be in any immediate danger of being dethroned.

I discovered Fossum by chance a few years ago. I had gone to Film Fest DC to see a new Italian film, La Ragazza del Lago (The Girl by the Lake). In the credits at the end, I was quite surprised to see that this film was based on the Norwegian novel Se deg ikke tilbake (Don’t Look Back) by Karin Fossum.

Because I am very interested in contemporary Norwegian literature, I immediately checked her out. I bought a copy of the English translation, Don’t Look Back. I read it, liked it, and then proceeded to read all of her books that had been translated into English. (And then I reread two of them in Norwegian.)

Before becoming a writer, Fossum worked in hospitals, mental institutions, and drug rehabilitation centers. This experience has definitely influenced her writing. She clearly felt sympathy for her patients and has transferred this compassionate attitude to the protagonist of her series, Inspector Konrad Sejer.

Sejer is a kind person. He cares about people. He treats everyone he meets with respect, whether they are the suspected perpetrator of a crime, or the victim, or the victim’s family. He wants to get to know these people. He wants to know what is going on in their lives in order to understand them. By carefully probing the individuals’ lives, he succeeds in solving the crime.

What is particularly remarkable in Fossum’s novels is the way she lets us see what is going on in the minds of her characters, especially the perpetrators. They are people who for some reason commit a crime, people you might not expect to do such a thing. These are the people who fascinate her. As she has said, “An evil person that commits an evil crime is not interesting. But a good person that commits an evil act, that’s really interesting.”

Quite often in her novels, the reader knows at the very beginning who the guilty person is, and we follow both this person and Inspector Sejer throughout the novel until the case is solved.

book cover for "The Caller" by Karin Fossum

One good example of this approach is her novel The Caller. We learn early on that the perpetrator of some very disturbing acts is a young man. He is not a bad person, but he has not had an easy life. He becomes continually more upset with his circumstances until he starts acting out. The reader cannot help but feel sorry for him although what he has done is not condoned.

Book cover for "When the Devil Holds the Candle" by Karin Fossum

When the Devil Holds A Candle tells the story of a strange, reclusive older woman who does something very cruel to a man who has committed a minor crime. Whatever led her to commit this drastic act? What led the man to commit his crime? Does the reader sympathize with either or both of these individuals?

In He Who Fears the Wolf, the criminal investigation centers on three outsiders. The suspects are a juvenile delinquent, a schizophrenic who has just escaped from a mental institution, and a demented man. Many in the community blame one of these individuals. As frequently happens in our society, people unjustly single out as the perpetrator someone who is an outsider, someone who is “different.” Sejer patiently works to solve the crime.

The issue of immigration is the theme in The Indian Bride (Called Calling Out for You in the British translation). A Norwegian man goes to India and marries an Indian woman. She is killed shortly after her arrival in Norway. Why would anyone desire the death of this immigrant woman? Is racism the motive for this murder in a small Norwegian town?

In another novel, Bad Intentions, Fossum writes about two friends who intentionally cause the death of a third friend. The reader knows from the beginning who is guilty, but Inspector Sejer must work hard to find out who they are. In the meantime, we follow the friends as they begin to feel guilty about what they have done. We see their anguish, their fear, and finally their distrust of each other.

Fossum is versatile in the topics she chooses. But in each book the primary focus is on the perpetrator. Watching Inspector Sejer as he tries to uncover this person definitely makes for very interesting reading.

Fossum has written twelve books to date. Ten have already been published in English. Her eleventh book will be published in English in 2015, and her twelfth has yet to be translated into English.

If you are interested in seeing the film that started my obsession, The Girl by the Lake, it is available from amazon.com and Netflix. The Italians, however, have moved the setting from the Norwegian mountains to the Italian Dolomites.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.