Monday, 28 February 2011

Bad Intentions ~ Karin Fossum

Alex, (Philip) Reilly and Jon are camping out on the banks of Dead Water Lake.  They all have something on their conscience, something in which they were involved together nine months earlier, something that has affected each in a very different way.  Alex has become more determined than ever to keep the situation and those concerned completely under his control; Reilly has retreated further into a world dulled by the use of narcotics; Jon - Jon has found no way of coping and as a consequence has been admitted to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital following a nervous breakdown.  The trip to the lake is Jon's first venture back into the world and it quickly becomes apparent that his reluctance to go away with his friends is well founded.  When the three of them go out on the Lake that night only two return.

This is the first of Fossum's Insepctor Sejer novels that I've read and was kindly sent to me by NetGalley.  Normally, I prefer to read a crime series in order and I'm feeling the lack of any pre-knowledge of how Fossum works acutely in writing this review.  In many respects this novel is very different from the books in this genre that I would normally read and I don't know to what extent that is true of all the author's work, or whether this book stands out as an exception in her own work.  There is also the further complication that I am, of course, reading it in translation and some of the features that stand out may be as a result of that further physical distancing from the writer's intentions.  

And distancing is one of the first things that I was  aware of with this novel, my distance as a reader from most of the characters and most especially from the two detectives Sejer and Skarre.  This is certainly not what I would expect from a British or American crime writer, who for the most part will centre the narrative around the thoughts and the actions of their investigators and make each novel the opportunity to develop their on-going characters.  Here, the only character to whom I became anywhere near attached was Reilly.  The detectives remained almost anonymous, although this could, of course, be a feature of this book alone; it may be that I ought to know them well enough by now from earlier novels in the series.

The other aspect of the book which I found different was how sparse it seemed.  There are no sub-plots, no red herrings, it concentrates on telling the story of the crime these three have committed and its disastrous consequences to the exclusion of anything else.  As crime novels in English get thicker and thicker, with two or sometimes three investigations running parallel to each other, it seemed strange to sit down and read this book in a single sitting.

However, these differences do not make this in any way a less satisfying read.  The main effect of the unexpected point of view is that there is a tendency to sympathise, or at least to understand, the perspective of the accused and in this case, at least, that is no bad thing.  By the end of the book, one person will bear the responsibility for a series of preventable deaths, but nevertheless it is difficult to feel that what you are looking at is a harden criminal.  Coming hot on a succession of Val McDermid's serial killers this is something of a relief.  Perhaps not all baddies are psychopaths after all.  It is also a lot easier to keep up with the twists and turns of the plot.  In fact, I'm tempted to ask what twists and turns?  If you've tried to get your mind round something like the latest C J Sansom, for example, this is also a comfort.  Drawing up plot analyses was something I thought I'd put behind me when I finished my PhD, but with some crime fiction it's really the only way to keep track of what's going on.

All in all then this is a well-written book, with a clear, well organised plot and some interesting, if perhaps underdeveloped, characters.  Certainly, I enjoyed it enough to go back in the series in order to discover to what extent it is typical of Fossum's work and I would be more than happy to pick up her next novel to see where her writing takes her.


  1. Hello Annie,

    I have to admit that I have yet to read anything by any of the numerous upcoming selection of Scandinavian crime/thriller authors.

    I regularly purchase crime/thriller books for my father, who is elderly and housebound and recently I have included a number of titles, written by various Scandinavian authors,including Karin Fossum.

    He tends to give the books back to me to read afterwards, along with his comments about them. He has consistently voiced much the same thoughts as your own, with reference to the Scandinavian authors, to the point where he has now asked me not to give him any more of them.

    All of these books are now languishing in my TBR mountain, so I really must dig them out and see what impact they have on me.


  2. Yvonne, it's interesting and reassuring to hear that your father feels that way. My initial intention was to go back and read some of the earlier books in the Inspector Sejer series, but the more I've thought about it the less sure I am that I want to do that. in the end I felt that I was being held at arm's length from all the characters and I like to become more involved than that. Perhaps on a very hot summer day (if we ever have one again!) when I feel like something cool and undemanding I might see if the library has anything.

  3. I brought a stack of Scandinavian crime fiction back from the library again today, including Fossum's first Sejer novel. We'll see how that goes! I do feel that reading the Beck ones is really easing me into this material in a more comfortable way--because they are actually drily comical rather than just bleak. Another I got today is Helene Tursten's 'Detective Inspector Huss,' which is billed on the front as "Sweden's Prime Suspect." We'll see! I'm curious about it partly because it seems to be closer to the feminist crime fiction in the hard-boiled style than to the strict police procedural (at least, again, going from the cover blurbs). That might be a nice change, as I do find the procedurals very masculine--inevitably so, with the Beck ones, given their timing, but still, it's a very male world and perspective, by and large, without much self-critique.

  4. Rohan, looking at the pile of reading I've got to get through for teaching purposes over the next couple of weeks, it's going to be the end of the month before I can pick up the Beck, but I will try that and see what I think. Tursten is a name I haven't come across so it's over to the library site to see what they've got. I've just been re-watching the entire "Prime Suspect' Series as my guilty weekend pleasure, so it will be interesting to see how accurate that description is. I'm looking forward to what you make of the Fossum. I'll hang fire on getting hold of any others until I hear what you think.

  5. I've not read a lot of Scandinavian crime novels--not Karin Fossum yet anyway--but thinking back on who I've read I think you're right that there is a distance kept from the main characters. You do know a little about them, but not in the same way as Lynley and Havers, say with Elizabeth George. I wonder how much this has to do with translation, though maybe it is simply the style. I am watching Prime Suspect by the way--am on series five. A coworker was also watching them and did them in one go more or less--requesting a new DVD from Netflix each week. I tend to have to take a break as the episodes can be so intense and she is rarely given a break. Talk about hard as nails. I plan on reading Helene Tursten as well and have something or other by her.

  6. Goodness, Danielle, your co-worker must have a strong stomach. I had the DVD set for Christmas and am slowly working my way through them. They definitely need to be done in small doses as far as I'm concerned, but they are both good crime fiction and good television. I shall be sorry when I've finished them - one to go.