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hellfire300Written by Karin Fossum, translated by Kari Dickson — When deep, dark and long-held family secrets finally surface, it can burn through our hearts and minds like hellfire. That’s what Karin Fossum sets out to show in her latest Konrad Sejer novel. It’s not so much a mystery as a gripping whydunnit that climaxes in a crescendo of revelations that explain a heartbreaking murder outside as small Norwegian town. It easily falls into that emerging category of domestic noir, as well.

In a rusty old trailer on a farmstead near Skarven, the bodies of Bonnie Hayden and her five-year-old son Simon are discovered. They’ve been brutally slain with a filleting knife, which is found at the scene along with a big, bloody boot print. Every murder is shocking, but Sejer is particularly shaken by the deaths of these innocent victims. The farmer, his wife and daughters, and the farm’s seasonal contingent of Polish workers are all shocked as well, and one Pole recalls a red car parked nearby. Bonnie and Simon, elated in the Norwegian summer, had asked the farmer if they could spend the night in the caravan for fun and he’d said yes. Who could possibly want these poor souls dead?

Between scenes in which Sejer and his colleagues – occasionally assisted by the detective’s trusty dog, Frank – set out their investigation, we get glimpses of the lives of Simon and Bonnie and the track they were on before they were killed. Bonnie was a home help, assisting the elderly with their housework. She worked long and hard on low pay, leaving Simon at his nursery school every day – something the boy couldn’t bear.

Bonnie’s mother Hennie is distraught over the murders, but she’s slightly cagey when Sejer and Skarre question her. Is it her pain that’s making her hold back, or is she embarrassed about something in her family’s past?

We also cut away to a storyline exploring the lives of 20-year-old Eddie Malthe and his mother Thomasine – called Mass for short. They live with their Labrador Shiba and it’s clear that Eddie has an undiagnosed personality disorder. He can’t work, cook or clean, and a bit like someone with Asperger’s syndrome he has fixed obsessions. One is for crossword puzzles and another is a family history programme that tracks down people’s long lost relations. Eddie’s father left the family when he was a toddler and moved to Denmark, but rather than feeling hurt over his abandonment, Eddie is insistent on finding the man’s grave. Mass won’t cooperate in giving Eddie details about his dad, and has worries of her own – Shiba is getting old, and strange marks are appearing on Mass’ legs. Plus, there’s her back pain.

What possible connection can there be between frustrated Eddie – whose dark side shows through in fantasies about boiling the neighbour’s cat – and Bonnie and Simon? Is Eddie the killer, or could it be someone from Bonnie’s past like her ex-husband, or even the husband of her friend Britt, who happens to drive a red car? More than that, why would anyone want this lovely woman and her innocent child to die? It’s as baffling as it is depressing.

We know the outcome, and can make a good guess at who the killer is all along, and everything plays out like a fatal, existential drama as Karin Fossum peels away the layers of each main character. They are fully flesh and blood, completely believable beings with hopes and dreams, nuances, foibles, strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure I’ve ever read characters this rounded. You’ll feel like you’re there in the room with them, and know how they’re feeling.

The prose is so cleverly simple it’s sublime. Credit is due to the translator not just for converting Fossum’s words from Norwegian to English, but for keeping Eddie’s crossword clues and answers more or less intact despite differing word lengths across the two tongues.

Maybe this book isn’t quite as powerful as her last one, The Drowned Boy, but I’m still giving it five stars because it is simply superb. If you want to be a crime writer you need to read Hellfire to observe how fully the characters are drawn. If you don’t, you must read it for its sensitive and yet brutally honest depiction of the pain we all experience when things are kept from us. It’ll burn through you like hellfire.

Read our guide to the full Inspector Sejer series here, it’s one of the most popular articles on Crime Fiction Lover.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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