Monday, July 27, 2009

The Water's Edge

There's not much doubt in my mind anymore that Karin Fossum is the best living writer of crime fiction. She is amazing--the true heir to the mysteries of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Her detective, Inspector Konrad Sejer, reminds the Scandinavian-crime fanatic of the similarly tall, quiet Martin Beck (after whom I modeled my own tall, quiet detective in my own unpublished, and perhaps never-to-be published, crime novel), though he is unique in his gentle humor and philosophical bent, and refreshing in his unwillingness to allow his passion for order to result in self-destruction. Sejer is dark and interesting without being tortured. He's got the confidence of P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish without any of the pretension. He's a good man, and a strange man.

The new book is about the disappearances of two children. Fossum manages to do something that I hate whenever any other crime novelist does it--she enters the mind of the killer, right off the bat. She does this not in order to front-load her stories with suspense, or demonstrate her artful recreation of the criminal mind, but because she regards crime as a human condition, its practitioners worthy of empathy. Her aims are literary: people interest her. In her novels you will never find a wild scramble across a warehouse floor for a dropped gun. You will never find the hunter become the hunted. You will never see anything happen just in the nick of time, nor a killer brilliantly taunt the police. You'll just see human beings grappling with their inherent nature.

Which is not to say this book isn't a page-turner. Fossum gives us two mysteries, then hands over the solution to one of them, gratis. The detectives think that both have the same solution; the reader knows they're wrong. This is where the suspense comes from: the disconnect between what we know and what they know. Think "Blood Simple." In the midst of this investigation, we also read about one strange marriage, one strange childhood, and several strange obsessions. There is no artificial energy here: no ticking time bomb, no race against the clock. Just the slow churn of deduction, accident, and moral complexity--the latter on prominent display here, when an offender has just been placed under arrest:

The cell faced a backyard with a brown Portakabin and several parked patrol cars. He saw Volvos and Fords. A row of green wheelie bins was lined up against the Portakabin. He paced the floor. He could take only a few steps before he had to turn around. He thought about those who had occupied the cell before him, thieves and robbers, murderers. He had nothing in common with them. [...] They had promised him something to eat, but no food had arrived.

And later, after the same offender has been sentenced:

He liked the workshop and he liked the food. He liked helping out in the kitchen, all the smells and the heat from the stove, the huge, steaming, bubbling pots.

He slept fairly well at night, curled up on his bunk in a fetal position. He was serving ten years. On completing his sentence he would be released back into the community, back to his lonely existence on benefits [...] No one would welcome him, he would be left to his own devices, his own pain and his own urges. All things considered, prison life was not as bad as he had imagined.

This book, all things considered, is better than I dared hope.


Unknown said...

Is this a good place to start with this here writer lady? Or do you rec. a different book as a starter? (I think I told you, E. Is super into mysteries and so far all of your recs have been total hits).

Anonymous said...

Her earlier stuff is not as straightforward, but it's all good...I really, really love the one before this, The Indian Bride. There's also a non-series literary novel, Black Seconds, which I have, but haven't read yet.

How's yer summer going, S.?

Sarah Weinman said...

FYI - Black Seconds is part of the Sejer series (it comes after THE INDIAN BRIDE aka CALLING OUT FOR YOU aka BELOVED POONA, which is the most literal translation of the book's title) but BROKEN, which has not yet been published in the US, is a weird little postmodern literary tale where the main character demands the author (Karin) fashion his story as he sees fit, to a variety of consequences.

But Fossum is one of the best crime novelists going right now, no question, and THE WATER'S EDGE is pretty terrific.

Anonymous said...

Yep, that was a typo! Or, a mistake, anyway. I meant Broken, which I have gotten from the UK but haven't cracked yet...I have indeed read and liked Black Seconds.

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