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Hell Fire: An Inspector Sejer Mystery


Hell Fire: An Inspector Sejer Mystery

Never has so grisly a story been told in such a sane and clear-eyed fashion.

But that’s often true of Scandinavian noir: Sensationalism is not these northern mysterians’ style. I remember how radical it was to read a thriller in which flawed, gloomy, often obsessive detectives --- from Martin Beck to Kurt Wallander to Harry Hole --- supplanted brainy, well-bred sleuths like Wimsey, Lynley, Poirot and, of course, Sherlock Holmes.

The Norwegian representative of these unglamorous crime fighters, Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer, seems rather ordinary at first. Unlike Wallander or Hole, he has no messy private life. A widower, he misses his wife, loves his dog, and wonders what he’ll do with himself after retirement. Compassion and insight are his forte. Neither rebellious nor prone to excess, he is innately kind and orderly, and seldom roused to anger.

Yet inwardly he seethes when confronted with the terrible crime that opens HELL FIRE, Fossum’s 13th Sejer novel. A mother and child have been brutally murdered while spending the night in a broken-down trailer on a farm, and Sejer is fiercely determined to find the culprit. His demeanor is calm, without melodrama. Only at night, when he is alone thinking about the case, does he let it get to him: “He could not imagine the fear and terror that must have filled the old trailer. But sometimes his imagination ran wild and then he struggled to breathe."

"HELL FIRE is a masterful police procedural; it is also a meditation on the profound and sometimes misguided nature of maternal love. But Fossum never lets philosophy overtake plot."

That sentence is all the more powerful because it is so understated. In fact, the whole experience of reading HELL FIRE, despite its lurid title, is oddly quiet and intense. That’s because Fossum sets it up so exquisitely. After Sejer begins his pursuit of the murderer, she takes the narrative back to a point seven or eight months before the crime and traces two parallel plot lines, both concerning a single mother and a son, but otherwise utterly different. You know there will be a savage collision, but not why.

Bonnie and five-year-old Simon, the victims, are angelic in their goodness. She struggles to make a living as a home health aide --- the details of her elderly clients’ lives are woefully realistic: sometimes maddening, sometimes warming, almost always bleak --- and Simon must go to daycare while she is at work. He hates the separation; they both do. But they are rich in love. And just before the murder, Bonnie has received wonderful, life-changing news that makes their death all the more poignant. 

Twenty-one-year-old Eddie and his mother, Mass, short for Thomasine, are another story. There is enough money for her to stay home with her massively built, strangely childish son (he is referred to as having an “undiagnosed personality disorder”). But an aura of menace hangs over their tidy little life. Eddie is competent in some areas --- he can drive; he does crosswords; he knows computers --- and utterly dependent in others. He is “painfully aware that people talked about him. The slow, fat boy who lived with his mom.” His cruelty to animals is disturbing, as is his preoccupation with his dead father --- indeed, with death in general. He visits graveyards for entertainment and is terrified at the prospect of his mother’s eventual demise.

HELL FIRE is a masterful police procedural; it is also a meditation on the profound and sometimes misguided nature of maternal love. But Fossum never lets philosophy overtake plot. Every couple of chapters, she returns to Sejer to let us in on the progress of his investigation. It isn’t clear how or when he will discover the connection between these two mothers and sons. “It was always the small things, the links between people and where they could lead,” the inspector muses as he ponders how crimes are solved.

My only very small beef is that the prose is a bit awkward: not quite idiomatic, especially when it comes to dialogue. Maybe it’s the translation, or the nature of Scandinavian languages themselves, because I recall feeling the same way when I first read Henning Mankell. Since I subsequently devoured every one of his Wallander novels and all of Fossum’s Sejer oeuvre as well, obviously this isn’t a deal breaker. The plain, slightly formal quality of the writing, in any case, is consistent with HELL FIRE’s singular gravity.

Sejer catches the killer in the end, but there is little sense of vindication --- rather, a feeling that all this was fated to happen, as in a Greek drama. The key to Bonnie and Simon’s murderer is buried in the past. The truth was concealed out of parental protectiveness and shame; years later, a dire punishment plays out. You close the book with a sense of sorrow at the high cost of family secrets.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on September 9, 2016

Hell Fire: An Inspector Sejer Mystery
by Karin Fossum

  • Publication Date: August 15, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544944399
  • ISBN-13: 9780544944398