Mystery-Thriller Is Not a Typical One
When the Devil Holds the Candle
By Karin Fossum
Harcourt, 2006, $24
Even in Norway, small towns hold their share of scandalous secrets.
Karin Fossum proves it in this novel featuring Inspector Konrad Sejer and a series of confused and/or unsavory characters in a small Norwegian town.
The plot is part police procedural and part psychological thriller, not unlike Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. Sejer and his younger colleague, Jacob Skarre, investigate but do not solve the crime. It's left to them to sort things out in the end, frustrating but perhaps more realistic than the plotting of many murder mysteries.
On the surface two crimes appear unrelated. A young mother is hysterical when two young thugs try to steal her pocketbook. Frightened, she lets go of the baby carriage, which runs into rocks at water's edge and her son strikes his head on a rock.
Later, one of the two thugs disappears. His mother pleads with Sejer and Skarre to find her only son, Andreas. At first, they are not convinced that Andreas has met with foul play. After all, he is an adult, although a young one. Nevertheless, the detectives do investigate but their efforts bear no fruit. Zipp, Andreas' best friend, knows something but will not divulge the truth.
Following up one clue after another, Sejer eventually finds himself in the kitchen of a lonely old woman whose behavior is strange indeed. The detective doesn't understand the connection but senses that something is tragically wrong in this setting.
Many of these scenes are eerily reminiscent of the best of Alfred Hitchcock.
Fossum's style is simple. She wastes no words on empty descriptive passages but does score with sharp insight into the reasoning of her characters -- or perhaps, the lack of reason on the part of the troubled, confused, lonely and frustrated.
"When the Devil Holds the Candle" is not the typical murder mystery. Fossum's style may be confusing at first, and the reader must be patient and let the writer sort out the threads of her plot and the complexities of her characters.
Her technique divides the narrative between third person observations and the first person account by one of her characters, but not Sejer or Skarre. It's a process I don't altogether like, but in some ways it is effective by providing psychological understanding of key characters.
This is Fossum's third book featuring Inspector Sejer. Translated from the Norwegian by Felicity David, it is now also available in paperback.
The author has published a number of other novels and two collections of short stories. Her crime novels have been translated into 16 languages.
Florence Gilkeson may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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