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Bad Intentions, By Karin Fossum, trans Charlotte Barslund

A dip into troubled waters

At a recent crime-fiction convention in Bristol, the authors who were after-dinner speakers were dispensing the usual darkly humorous pleasantries to a chuckling audience; how they made a living from murder; how their spouses came up with ever-more ingenious ways of dispatching victims.

But then the guest of honour, Karin Fossum, took the stage, and the bonhomie evaporated in a cool blast of Norwegian air.

Fossum – possibly the most accomplished Nordic female writer of crime fiction at work today – was having none of the brandy-induced good humour that had preceded her, and her truly terrifying description of a real-life child murder was delivered point blank to a suddenly sober audience. People shifted uneasily in their seats, but it was a salutary reminder that crime – however pleasurable on the page – has grim consequences in the non-literary world.

And here is Bad Intentions, a further reminder that Fossum is not in the business of offering readers entry to a comfort zone. As her steely protagonist Inspector Sejer investigates a series of deaths that begin with an apparent suicide, we are a million miles away from crime-fiction cosiness. The book's first location, Dead Water Lake, is as bleak as its name suggests, introducing a narrative shot through with icicles of human malignity. Fossum's Norway is an apposite setting for a long dark night of the soul.

That's not to say, however, that reading Bad Intentions is anything but a bracingly pleasurable experience. By stripping away the usual police procedurals, Fossum suffuses her fiction with something closer to the unsparing vision of her great predecessor, Knut Hamsun.

But this is still a thriller: Fossum never forgets that her primary duty is to entertain, and she keeps her cut-to-the-bone mystery moving briskly. A young man dies in a nocturnal boating incident, and a fateful pact is subsequently made between the two friends who were with him. Inspector Sejer sets out to crack the alibis of the survivors.

Then another body – that of a teenage boy – is found in a nearby lake. With nary a wasted word (in the utilitarian translation by Charlotte Barslund), Fossum steers the ever-apprehensive reader towards the novel's irresolute conclusion. This is not a relaxing journey – but then it would be foolish to pick up a Karin Fossum book for a soothing experience, wouldn't it?

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