Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:


‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.

‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

5 books, Book lists

5 books for Women in Translation month

5-books-200pixAugust is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation.

Why? Mainly to redress the balance: figures suggest that just 30 per cent of literature in translation is written by women. According to blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, the situation has changed little over the past three years — and now it’s time to change it. (This post gives you all the stats you need to know.)

It’s great to see that this year’s #WITMonth seems to have really caught the imagination of readers, publishers and booksellers everywhere. All the major bookshops here in London — Waterstones, Folyes, the LRB et al — have got behind it. So, too, has the Reading Agency.

I’m a keen reader of translated fiction (you can see everything I’ve reviewed here), so thought I would highlight some of my favourites by women writers. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:


‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

This is an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which is supposedly based on the author’s own life. Set in Indochina in 1929, it is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, and the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge to it. It’s not a story that is easily forgotten…

Bad intentions

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Three young men go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake, but only two of them return to shore. It’s not so much what happens, but why that makes this novella such a terrifically good read, one that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. It’s the ninth volume of Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, but it works as a stand-alone book. I’ve read quite a few of Fossum’s crime novels — and I’ve yet to come across a bad one.


‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten

One of my favourite reads from 2015, this extraordinarily beautiful novel is both a touching portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over. How do such people damaged by the unfathomable horror and trauma of the Nazi death camps get on with their lives? Based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling.

Hotel Iris

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This is another haunting tale about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. But Ogawa’s story is more dark and twisted than Duras’ (above). The affair puts the woman in danger because the man is a sexual deviant and prone to unexpected rages and no one knows that the pair have hooked up. This tension-filled story is written in such a quietly understated and restrained style it’s not until you finish it that you realise how strange and disturbing it really is…

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

This profoundly moving novella looks at what happens when a mother feels she can’t cope with her children. She takes them on a holiday to the seaside but doesn’t have the money to do much other than pay for the squalid accommodation that she’s arranged for them. The kind of story that could have been lifted from the news headlines, this has an earth-shattering ending that will make you think twice about judging women who commit infanticide.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Drowned Boy’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Karin Fossum novel is always a wonderful, almost meditative, experience. Even though she writes about horrible crimes, her compassion and intelligence shine through, and by the time you reach the final page you’re left feeling irrevocably changed — for the better.

Her latest, The Drowned Boy, is right up there among her best. It’s a police procedural, the 11th in her Inspector Sejer series, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary to read any of the others to “get” it — indeed, it’s strong enough to simply stand on its own.

Death of a toddler

The Drowned Boy follows Inspector Sejer’s investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond at the bottom of his parent’s property.

On the face of it, Tommy’s death appears to be a tragic accident — one minute he was playing quietly inside, the next he was found floating in the water — but something doesn’t quite add up. Or at least that’s what the police feel, including Sejer’s colleague Jacob Skarre.

‘We’ve got a drowning,’ Jacob Skarre told him. ‘In Damtjern, the pond up by Granfoss, you remember? About twenty minutes from Moller Church. A little boy, sixteen months old. His mother found him by the small jetty, but it was too late. The ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for about three-quarters of an hour, to no avail. Some uncertainty as to how he ended up in the water. Also, he was naked, but we’re not quite sure what that means. […]
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way. There in half an hour.’
And then, after a short pause: ‘Is there something that doesn’t feel right? Is that why you called?’
‘Yes,’ Skarre replied, ‘it’s the mother. I can’t explain it, but I think we should look a bit closer. Let’s just leave it at that, you know what I mean.’

As the police dig into the circumstances surrounding Tommy’s death, the relationship between the young parents, Carmen and Nicolai, begins to crumble under the focus of so much attention from the authorities and the weight of their grief.

Each deals with their pain in a different way: Carmen behaves as though everything is okay and is keen to have another child almost immediately, while Nicolai clams up and becomes insolent and withdrawn. This has wider repercussions on their relationships with friends and work colleagues, but it is when Carmen’s own family begin to turn against her that the alarm bells start ringing.

Did she or didn’t she kill her own son isn’t the real question here, because it’s pretty obvious from the start that the 19-year-old mother is guilty. The intrigue — and the narrative tension — is created by trying to figure out how she did it, why she did it, and will Sejer ever figure it out?

Fossum ratchets up the tension even further by having Sejer grapple with his own mortality: he’s been experiencing spells of dizziness and is frightened he might have cancer but refuses to seek medical advice.  As his investigation into the drowning unfolds, his own health worsens — will he be able to hold out long enough to see it to its rightful conclusion?

Typical Fossum fare

The Drowned Boy is typical Fossum fare. In writing about the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing, she is always careful never to sensationalise the crimes or cast judgement on her characters. Everything is carefully, quietly held in check — the police are compassionate, kind and patient; the people under investigation are all-too human — and this new novel is no exception. And yet I read it with a creeping feeling of unease. It’s a deeply unsettling story, one that feels so true it could have been lifted direct from the pages of a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a riveting read.

The Drowned Boy will be published in the UK on 4 June.

Please note that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer’s series has been translated out of order, so I haven’t been able to follow the series chronologically. The ones reviewed here are:  In the Darkness (first published in 1995, but only translated in 2013), Don’t Look Back (1996, trans 2003), Bad Intentions (2008, trans 2011) and The Caller (2009, trans 2012). All of them are excellent.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘In the Darkness’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 400 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Over the years I have read several of  Karin Fossum’s perceptive crime novels. In the Darkness, first published in her native Norway in 1995, has recently been translated into English for the first time. It is the first book in her landmark Inspector Sejer series.

A body in the river

The story focuses on single mother and struggling artist Eva Magnus. One sunny day she is walking along the river with her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, when they discover a man’s body in the water.

For a few moments they stood transfixed, staring at the sodden, decomposed body as it floated, head first, in amongst the stones. He was lying face down. The hair on the back of his head was thin and they could make out a bald patch. Eva […] looked at the waxen-coloured corpse with its matted blond hair and couldn’t remember seeing him before. But those trainers — those blue and white striped high-top trainers.

Emma urges her to phone the police, but when Eva finds a public phone box to make the call she only pretends to do so. Instead, she speaks to her father and makes no mention of what she has found. She then takes Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal — and tries to ignore the body in the river.

Of course, the police eventually discover the man and it’s clear his death wasn’t the result of drowning: he had 15 stab wounds in his lower back, bottom and abdomen.

Investigations by Inspector Konrad Sejer and his colleague Karlson reveal that the man had been missing for six months. He was 38 years old, married and had a six-year-old son. He was last seen when he took his car to meet a prospective purchaser: the vehicle was later found abandoned in the municipal dump.

Was he the unwitting victim of a “desperado wanting money” or did he have a large debt or know something he shouldn’t have known?

A whydunnit, not a whodunnit

The unusual thing about this novel — and this is common in all of the Fossum novels I have read — is that it’s pretty obvious from the start who committed the crime. What you don’t know is how they did it — and why.

This is a particularly tricky approach to take but Fossum does it expertly without any loss of narrative tension. The first part of the book is a cat-and-mouse game as Sejer hones in on the likely suspect; the rest is told as a confession from the killer’s perspective. What you end up getting is a police procedural cum psychological thriller. Indeed, Fossum ratchets up the tension by throwing in the odd red herring — and then she delivers a real twist at the end which had me sucking in my breath in complete surprise.

And while In The Darkness is a shocking tale, Fossum treats her subject matter — poverty, prostitution and murder — with huge delicacy and compassion. There’s a real humanity to her writing, because she is interested in exploring the impact of the crime, not only on the victim’s family but on the perpetrator and, to a lesser extent, the police themselves.  It’s hard not to read this without feeling empathy for all the characters — guilty and innocent alike.

Finally, I just wanted to mention something about the poorly designed, rather drab cover of this particular paperback edition. The picture of a slim little girl on the front has absolutely nothing to do with the story (seven-year-old Emma is mentioned very briefly in this book and it is clear that she is a rather obese child, which doesn’t match the image used). And then there’s the roundel, which proclaims Fossum as a contemporary Patricia Highsmith — I’m not sure the two authors have much in common, aside from the fact they are both interested in the criminal mind. Does this kind of marketing bumpf really push sales?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Caller’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 296 pages; 2012. Translated from the Norwegian by K.E. Semmel. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Norwegian author Karin Fossum is quickly turning into one of my favourite crime writers. The Caller is her tenth novel in the Inspector Sejer series — and the third one I have read. Even though the books feature the same detective they are not strictly police procedurals. Instead Fossum’s perceptive — and empathetic — eye turns towards the perpetrator and the victims as she explores the cause and effect of often horrendous crimes.

A baby drenched in blood

The Caller begins in spectacular fashion when an odd crime is carried out. A young couple, Lily and Karsten Sundelin, are eating a meal indoors while their baby sleeps peacefully in her pram in the garden. When Lily goes to bring baby Magrete inside she feels a terrible foreboding. The baby is drenched in blood. The understandably distraught parents assume she is bleeding from the mouth and rush her to hospital. But once she is checked over, the nurses reveal the baby is unharmed — and that the blood is not hers.

Cue a police investigation, headed by Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. Had Lily or Karsten done something to upset someone? Was this an act of revenge? Had a former jealous partner wanted to scare them? Or was it a woman who had lost her child in a terrible way?

Later that evening Sejer finds a hand-delivered postcard on his doorstep bearing the message: “Hell begins now”. It has a glossy photograph of a wolverine on the front. “There will be more attacks,” he tells his colleague. “We’re dealing with a beast of prey.”

And he is right: this shocking incident turns out to be the first in an increasingly bizarre string of brazen and cruel “pranks” that terrorises a wide cast of unsuspecting victims. The book charts the ensuing cat and mouse game between the perpetrator and Sejer and Skarre, who try to track him down.

Portrait of a tormentor

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the perpetrator is a young man, Johnny Beskow, who still lives at home with his alcoholic mother, whom he loathes. We meet him in chapter 4 and we discover how he chooses his victims, and why.

But Fossum does not paint things in black and white: Beskow may be carrying out criminal acts, he may wish his mother was dead, he may be filled with malice — but there are reasons for his warped worldview. And he’s not without the capacity to love: he dotes on his elderly grandfather, whom he visits regularly, and the caged guinea pig he keeps in his bedroom.

Essentially The Caller is not a whodunit, but a whydunit: what makes a young man carry out such spiteful crimes on random victims? And will he eventually get his comeuppance?

The human cost of crime

This neatly structured book interleaves Beskow’s storyline with that of the police investigation and that of the victims, both before and after the crime is carried out — it is fascinating to see how the Sundelin’s marriage begins to crumble as each partner copes with the crime in different ways; Karsten is angry and eaten up by a desire for revenge; Lilly’s fragile vulnerability turns her into a nervous wreck and she can no longer function normally. And it is equally fascinating to see how Beskow rationalises his actions — and how his conscience begins to bother him.

But it is the exquisitely planned plot which makes this novel an exceptional one: the impossible-to-guess double-twist ending left me gasping in shock.

Ripe with intelligence, suspense and psychological insight, The Caller is the cleverest and most involving crime book I’ve read this year.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum


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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘Don’t Look Back’ by Karin Fossum


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 252 pages; 2003. Translated from the Norwegian by Felicity David.

A sleepy Norwegian village is rocked by the discovery of a teenage girl’s naked body lying on the edge of a local, secluded lake. Did she kill herself? Or was she the victim of a sexual attack?

But there’s much more to this crime than meets the eye, as Inspector Sejer soon discovers. The victim, for instance, was an extremely popular girl in the neighbourhood, but she had recently become withdrawn and had quit her school’s handball team despite being a top-notch player. She had also stopped her regular babysitting work. Her mother puts this change in behaviour down to puberty; her father thinks there’s slightly more going on; Sejer wonders if she might have been raped.

There’s little evidence of who committed the murder but several locals fall under suspicion, including a disabled man, a teacher and the girl’s boyfriend. Without giving away the ending, it’s always the person you least expect, isn’t it?

Ultimately, Don’t Look Back, by Karin Fossum, is a fast-moving, well-paced crime thriller that had me guessing all the way through, which is rather rare for me: I normally guess the ending long before I reach the final page.

The prose is straightforward, clear and concise and the dialogue is realistic.

It has a convincing set of characters, especially Inspector Sejer, a widower still mourning the death of his wife, who is smart, tough and fatherly. I liked him enormously.

And the atmosphere — both of the cloying community stunned by the crime, and the sense of dread that builds as the investigation progresses — is pretty much perfect.

On the strength of this one book I’ve already added the remainder of Fossum’s back catalogue to my wish list.