Monday, April 16, 2007

He Who Fears the Wolf (by Karin Fossum)

Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer comes on the scene surprisingly late in He Who Fears the Wolf, the second of this Norwegian author's novels about Sejer to be translated into English (three more translations have followed), and once he arrives, Fossum lets us see him mainly through the eyes of other characters:

"What's your boss like? Tell me about him."

Skarre smiled. This was a common reaction when someone came across Konrad Sejer.

"Stern and gray. Slightly authoritarian. Reserved. Smart. Sharp as a scythe. Thorough, patient, dependable, and persistent. With a soft spot for little children and old ladies."

"Not anyone in between?"

Skarre gazed out the window. "He has forgotten that the only promise he made was to remain true to her until death separated them. He thinks that means his own death."
Look how much Fossum does in just a few lines. She tells the reader about her protagonist without falling prey to the dreaded "he looked at himself in the mirror and didn't like what he saw" syndrome. She injects a bit of humor and lets us know that Sejer's assistant regards him with respect and affection -- a valuable piece of information in a police procedural. And she gives a far more evocative description than is usual of the lonely middle-aged detective.

But the passage's most distinctive aspect is its perspective: One character, rather than an omniscient or third-person narrator, does the describing. Elsewhere, an escaped inmate from a mental institution analyzes a bank robber in a way that will make you smile, and a psychologist analyzes Sejer based on Sejer's manipulations of a toy toad.

Sure, the novel contains lengthy passages that probe its criminals' states of mind. But that's not what makes He Who Fears the Wolf a psychological novel, at least not in the book's first half. Rather, almost everyone is a psychologist: Sejer, the escaped inmate, and the bank robber. A resident of a home for troubled boys who discovers a killing. Oh, and the psychologist and Fossum herself, who grants us probing access to the minds of even solitary characters. And the psychologizing is never oppressive. It's just what these people do. It's the aspect of character and action that apparently fascinates Fossum.

I'll post a comment on the novel's second half once I've read it.
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The novel's first hundred or so pages offer scenes with supervising staff members of the mental institution and of the home for troubled boys. The institutions themselves may be grim, but the two supervisors are exceptionally wise and humane, at least in their initial appearances. This is a change from the Nurse Ratcheds of the world whom many us may be used to, or from the self-imporant bureaucrats who run the institutions that fill Friedrich Glauser's books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

I have read at least one book by this author (the first in the series) and really enjoyed it. The trouble is, it was so long ago that I can't remember if I've read any more (eg this one) or not. The web is very useful for those whose memories are shot.

Great reveiew, whether or not I've read the book.

And congrats on your mention in the Library Journal article.

April 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks.

Here's a list of Karin Fossum's books from Fantastic Fiction. Clip and carry as a handy buying guide when you're in the mood for psychologically probing crime fiction from Norway: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/f/karin-fossum/

Some of the dialogue involving the nurse at the delinquents' home and, especially, the psychiatrist at the asylum crosses over into didactic speechifying, which I normally do not like. Much to my surprise, though, Fossum makes it work. She invents or borrows compelling metaphors for psychiatric conditions, and perhaps such speeches don't stick out as they might elsewhere, because the novel is populated with so much psychological analysis already.

The psychiatrist is interesting for another reason, but you'll have to read the novel to find out what it is.

April 17, 2007  

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