Karin Fossum has never seemed much interested in crime itself and rarely dwells on the details of the horrible things that have befallen the many victims 12 police procedurals demand. Instead she focuses on the circumstances that enable crime to happen: what is it about the lives of the victims and perpetrators that lead to the horror. As I am equally disinterested in bloody corpses and violence I am a fan of the way Fossum approaches the genre and was not disappointed by her latest offering.
HELL FIRE (or HELLFIRE?) is the 12th novel to feature Norwegian police inspector Konrad Sejer and is particularly melancholic, with three parallel narratives that spiral inevitably towards each other. The novel’s central crime takes place in the summer of 2005 and sees a woman and her young son murdered in an old caravan they’ve borrowed for the night. Initially there is some thought that the murders were committed by someone connected to the farm on which the caravan is parked, several foreign workers are employed there after all, but Sejer is not one to rush to judgement. With little forensic evidence to go on he slowly and methodically interviews everyone who knew Bonnie Hayden – her family, friends, the elderly people she assisted as a home help – and builds up a picture of what was happening in her life at the moment she was murdered.
The novel’s other two threads start about a year before the murder. In one we meet Bonnie and Simon and are provided an intimate and quite detailed picture of their day-to-day life as a single mum struggling to make ends meet financially and a quiet but sweet young boy. The final thread introduces another single mother Thomasine “Mass” Malthe and her adult son Eddie who is smart but not entirely able to cope on his own in the world. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out broadly how these two threads will intersect but that’s to be expected with Fossum. She is far less interested in whodunit than why, and that is what she takes the time to reveal.
As a novel of character studies HELL FIRE is absorbing. All of the central characters are highly believable and it is, at least at the outset, almost impossible to imagine that any of them will be involved in murder. Fossum’s strength though is in ensuring that by the end the reader will believe the resolution and understand why seemingly ‘normal’ human beings have behaved in a way so at odds with expectations. Along the way the book offers plenty of opportunity for us to get to know the core characters – so much so that we become invested in wishing for a different ending for everyone. There’s one twist that is both joyful and heartbreaking at the same time and I did find myself thinking uncharitable thoughts about Fossum and her meanness to her characters. But of course that’s the point: to show us the cruel tricks of fate and ponder how seemingly tiny decisions can have everlasting consequences.
Karin Fossum is one of few writers of long-running series whose work I have found consistently above average and HELL FIRE is no exception. It is almost poetic in its writing style, so kudos must also go to translator Kari Dickson, offers an emotionally wrenching storyline and is ultimately satisfying, though terribly sad. Much like the real world. I don’t think I can recommend Fossum highly enough and if you are an audio book fan you could do much worse than let David Rintoul tell you this particular story. It’s a treat.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator David Rintoul
Translator Kari Dickson
Publisher Random House Audio 
Length 7 hours 25 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #12 in the Konrad Sejer series