Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back

The Times called Karin Fossum “Norway’s foremost cold-climate crime writer” and selected her as one of its 50 best crime writers. Although she has published two volumes of poetry and two books of short stories, she is most famous for her eight Inspector Sejer mysteries (all but the first translated into English). These mystery novels have garnered numerous distinctions: The Indian Bride was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger Award and won the Los Angles Times Book Prize; When the Devil Holds the Candle received the Gumshoe Award for Best European Crime Novel; Don’t Look Back won the Glass Key Award for Best Crime Novel by a Nordic author. Fossum’s novels have been translated into 16 languages.

Norway’s “Queen of Crime” as The Times identifies her, writes police procedurals that “typically feature dark secrets in small, often isolated, communities with the detective’s own melancholy personality augmenting Fossum’s sound grip on criminal psychology and willingness to question perceptions of normality” (Berlins 2008). Fossum calls her novels “small, quiet stories”; New York Times’s critic Marilyn Stasio, “quietly unnerving thrillers.”

A 15-year-old girl’s naked body is found by a lake in Don’t Look Back. Inspector Sejer and his assistant, officer Skarre, question everyone in the small village. There are many red herrings, dark secrets, and twists and turns in the case. The story is engrossing, convincing, and thought-provoking.

Fossum takes as her starting point the insular village community of classic mystery novels. Her penetrating psychological analysis, though, distinguishes her novels as modern. Before we meet the characters in Don’t Look Back, we know that something is fundamentally wrong with their pastoral community:
The village lay in the bottom of a valley, at the end of a fjord, at the foot of a mountain. Like a pool in a river, where the water was much too still. And everyone knows that only running water is fresh. (6)
In her review of the novel, Stasio points out that the novel
is set in a picturesque Norwegian village. . . But there’s no mistaking this psychologically astute, subtly horrifying crime study for a cozy village mystery, or its soulful detective for one of those brainy European sleuths who make a parlor game of homicide.
Fossum has worked in hospitals, mental institutions, and homes for the elderly. A former nurse, taxi driver, and sales clerk, Fossum admits that she has seen “many troubled people.” In fact she told The Observer that she actually experienced a murder. She was a friend of a mother suffering from psychosis; this friend killed her six-year-old son. “When it happens to someone you know, Fossum observes, your eyes are wide open.”

Not surprisingly, her depiction of characters is insightful and empathetic: “It’s important to me,” she states
that the reader look upon every character as a human being. It’s easy to be decent if you never get into a difficult situation. But I take my characters and I put them in difficult situations. They don’t handle them too well. When everything goes wrong for them, I empathize with them. (Friesinger 2006, 34)
Fossum’s talent for portraying convincing characters extends to her detective. Inspector Sejer is a likeable, inspirational detective, one of those “police philosopher types the Northern climes generate. (Think of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander or Maj Sowall’s and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck)” (Corrigan 2004).

In her Wall Street Journal article, Laura Miller examines the growing appeal of Scandinavian crime novels. Readers, she argues, find the values of stoicism and steadfastness especially comforting in turbulent or unsettled times: “In Scandinavian detective fiction, this stoic ideal takes the form of a stalwart, methodical practicality. Almost all Nordic crime novels are procedurals, a genre that focuses on the often monotonous, day-to-day details of police work.”

Fossum told Publishers Weekly that the name Seyer means “victory” in Norwegian (Friesinger 2006, 34). Readers will agree that Fossum as well as her detective are victorious in Don’t Look Back.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Corrigan, Maureen. “Pits and Pendulums.” The Washington Post. March 28, 2004.

Fossum, Karin. Don’t Look Back. Translated by Felicity David. London: Vintage Books, 2002.

Friesinger, Alison. “An Ordinary Good Man: PW Talks with Karin Fossum.” Publisher’s Weekly 253, no. 24 (2006): 34.