Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 192 pages; 2011. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Judging by the number of Scandinavian crime thrillers that are 400 pages or more in length, I was pleasantly surprised to find Karin Fossum’s latest novel, Bad Intentions, had fewer than 200. This is the perfect size to fit in my bike bag, which meant I’ve spent much of this past week toting it into work for my lunch-time reading fix.
The novel — or should that be novella? — doesn’t follow the usual rules of the crime fiction genre. In many ways it’s not so much a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. There’s a twist though — isn’t there always? — which makes it the kind of book that gets you thinking.
The moral message of Bad Intentions is nicely summed up by one of the characters, who mid-way through the story opines: “We need a sense of decency. Without it we cannot live a good life.”
That sense of decency seems to have bypassed Axel Frimann, a 25-year-old advertising executive, who is by turns charming, domineering, ambitious and manipulative.
Together with his childhood friend Philip Reilly — a passive, directionless, drug-taking hospital porter — they invite a third friend, Jon Moreno, on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake. The trip is designed to cheer Jon up. Jon, lonely and withdrawn, has recently had a nervous breakdown and is currently residing in a hospital’s psychiatric ward.
But when Axel suggests a moonlit row across the lake in the middle of the night, Jon is reluctant to go. And probably with good reason — only two of the three men will return to shore.
I’m loathe to name which of the friends falls over board and drowns in the lake, but it’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the two survivors decide to cover it up. The book then focuses on why they made this fateful decision. After all, if it was an accident — or a suicide — what have they got to hide?
This is where Inspector Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre step in to find out. And while Bad Intentions isn’t strictly a police procedural — it largely focuses on the two survivors and the ways in which they deal with their guilty consciences — it does form an important element of the story.
It is only by Sejer and Skarre’s investigative work, mainly the interviews with family and friends, that enable the reader to sketch in details and hit upon clues to provide a bigger picture of what really happened on the lake and the events leading up to it.
The twist comes when a second body is found in another lake nearby. How is this linked to the first body? Or is it merely a red herring?
Sadly, I figured it all out before I had even reached the half-way point, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment — in fact, I was waiting for Fossum to prove me wrong, but all she did was confirm my theory.
That said, this is a terrific crime novel that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. Fossum’s prose style, translated by Charlotte Barslund, is crisp and clear, with not a word wasted — as it needs to be when the story is delivered in such a slim package. But this only goes to prove that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Bad Intentions is the ninth volume of the Inspector Sejer series (a tenth remains to be translated into English), but there’s no need to worry if you haven’t read the others: this can easily be enjoyed as a stand-alone book.