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Monday, September 19, 2011

Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum (hardcover, $24)

This is the ninth book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series, most of which have been translated into English from Norwegian, and it's a knockout.

Perhaps because it's so far along in the series, the book is less about Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre as it is about crime and its psychological consequences. Like a modern-day Crime and Punishment, Karin Fossum's book ventures deeply into the effect of guilt. But what is causing the guilt?

The book opens with three young men spending some time in a cabin in the woods by a lake. They are childhood friends, but there is an inexplicable tension in their gathering.

"It was Friday the 13th of September. They went out into the dark night and fetched the oars from the shed.

"A narrow path led down to the shore of Dead Water."

And before long, one of them is dead.

Jon has jumped out of the rowboat and committed suicide. Instead of getting help, the other two, Axel and Reilly, row back to shore and pretend Jon slipped out at dawn while they were asleep and drowned himself. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre are sent to investigate, and they immediately realize something is wrong. Jon's body has been found too far out for him, a non-swimmer, to have died in the manner described by Axel and Reilly.

Why have Axel and Reilly lied? We know something is wrong, and it is Fossum's great ability to present us with a picture of guilt under pressure that creates such a tense and beautifully crafted story.

The translation by Charlotte Barslund seems especially well done. With Barslund's light hand, Fossum's words seem poetic and just right. For instance, when Sejer is interviewing the grieving mother of a teenage boy whose body has just been discovered, the Vietnamese woman is overcome and disappears behind some coats hanging on a wall:

"Having hidden behind the clothes for a while, she reappeared with an apologetic smile."

Such simplicity of tone, but so much is conveyed by both Fossum and Barslund.

The mother says to Sejer:

"'Can you find out what happened?' she said, and now her voice was urgent. 'Will you know if anyone killed or tortured him? Can you find out why his heart stopped beating, his young, strong heart? There has to be a reason,' she pressed on. 'Nothing happens without a reason.'"

Sejer promises (the "forbidden word") that he will find out what happened to her son because, he tells Skarre, she "wears slippers embroidered with dragons."

It's a powerful story of psychological disintegration, suspicion, and a yearning for redemption.

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