Don't Look Back
Karin Fossum
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Don't Look Back
Karin Fossum
324 pages
June 2005
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In this mystery, author Karin Fossum is one step ahead of her readers, judiciously planting clues to send a chill up your spine. The psychological twists and turns of the novel are Hitchcockian: a six-year-old child disappears, terrifying her parents; when she suddenly returns home, a teenager is found murdered on a mountain path, her naked body carefully covered with a jacket. And the teenager’s on-and-off again boyfriend has lived through a childhood so nightmarish that he barely survives, only to find himself a murder suspect.

There is comfort in the person of Inspector Sejer, the man charged with solving this murder in the picturesque setting near the Kollen Mountains. With his calm demeanor, the gray-haired inspector pursues anyone who knew the murdered girl, peeling away the façade of this idyllic village. The teenager’s shocking death has unsettled everyone, but there is an appalling paucity of clues for the inspector to work with on this puzzling case.

Sejer is the backbone of the story, unobtrusive yet authoritative, skillfully unraveling the tragedy. The inspector and his young detective, Jacob Skarre, interrogate the residents of each house on the street where the girl lived, gently probing into their routines, how well they knew the deceased, their alibis for the time of the murder. Gradually the placid exterior of the village peels away, leaving a variety of dysfunctional households exposed, along with a number of plausible suspects.

The story becomes by turns more intricate, more revealing and more frightening. Inspector Sejer sifts through the most remote possibilities, but his detective’s instincts lead him unerringly to the core of the mystery, compounding the tragedy of the young woman’s death with injury to another innocent. His talent lies in probing beneath the surface of everyday motives, where the average person is driven to intolerable limits. Because of his own humanity, the inspector understands the nature of evil, when rage or stupidity overcomes reason. The small Norwegian town that is the scene of the senseless murder is like Anywhere, USA, the appearance of a simple, pastoral life surrounded by the beauty of nature.

It is amazing, in the telling, how the mundane daily actions of people are suddenly suspect, how one neighbor’s inconsequential memory can unlock the whole mystery. Certainly, Fossum has found her métier, structuring her characters with such deft strokes as to change innocence to threat in a heartbeat. It is the intricacies of human nature that provide the grist for this tale, deep psychological chasms opened up by intolerable emotions. Inspector Sejer is our guide through a morass of possibilities, staring into the black heart of the criminal act that changes man to monster.

Translated from the Norwegian, Don’t Look Back retains all the characters, names and places of its geography. This is one of a series of non-English mysteries now in translation for an American audience; after reading Don’t Look Back, they will be clamoring for more.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2004

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