Elvestad is part of the pitch of Inspector Konrad Sejer and his side-kick, Jacob Skarre, who have featured in Karin Fossum's other mystery novels. The two men are seemingly of a piece with their prosaic surroundings, and are at a distance from Henning Mankell's woman- and drink-ravaged Kurt Wallander or even Ruth Rendell's ebullient Wexford and Burden. Of Sejer, Fossum writes: "There was never anything hasty or rash about him. Similarly he always thought before he spoke. Young people who did not know him made the mistake of thinking him dim. Others saw the calm personality and sensed a man who rarely did things he regretted and even more rarely made a mistake." The younger Skarre, handsome, kind-hearted, religious, is no less virtuous, nor any less stolid. This is all part of Fossum's design. They do the very best they can, and therefore embody our own sense of responsibility, our own desire and need for social harmony. What they are up against is the inoperable waywardness of human beings, the antics of the psyche - and indeed of the body housing the psyche - when confronted with inevitable restriction.
Dull middle-aged Gunder Jomann decides to do something about both his dullness and his middle-age; he will go to India, and find himself a wife. Not that he knows much about India - but his hunch that it will unthaw his heart proves correct. In a Mumbai restaurant he encounters Poona, slightly younger than himself, attractive and unattached; within weeks they get married. Gunder returns to Norway to get the house ready for her, arranging to meet her on her arrival at Gardermoen airport. But on this keenly anticipated day, Gunder's sister is injured in a road accident, and he is called to the hospital. He sends Elvestad's taxi-man to collect his wife, only to receive an agitated phone-call from him saying that he can't find her. Yet she was on the passenger-list. The following day, Sejer and Skarre are summoned to a meadow outside the village where the body of an Indian woman has been found, face smashed to the bone, eyes invisible in the "pulp of red flesh", and blood all over the grass.
The crime leads the Inspector back to the Elvestad community, with its oscillations between curiosity, suspicion and self-centred indifference, though there is room for more generous impulses to reveal themselves. But the greatest generosity is Fossum's own. She shows us those existential bewilderments and emotional yearnings that, whether we like it or not, link us all, upright citizen, conscientious policeman or - a searingly convincing portrait this - the proprietor of Einar's Café with his lazy conscience and active greed. These revelations are made largely through dialogue, admirably rendered in Charlotte Barslund's lively translation.
It is an axiom of Fossum's that no single deed - even a spectacularly appalling one - can wholly represent its perpetrator. Real-life murderers, she points out, differ from their fictional counterparts in rarely killing a second time. At the end of this fine novel we feel that there is more to the apprehended criminal than the murder of Poona; at the same time her death outrages us, we experience real anger at having to accommodate it in our reality. These are lessons strangely apposite in this terrible month of July 2005, showing that Fossum's Elvestad, though indeed a "tiny place", is firmly situated in our actual world.
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