The Murder of Harriet Krohn is the seventh in her series of Inspector Sejer Mysteries and the first that I have read. So why am I starting out with something from the middle of the series? For the all-too-predictable reason that this is an inverted mystery and I am a little bit obsessed with the form.
Our killer is a man named Charlo Torp who begins the novel in a desperate state unemployed, estranged from his daughter and with his creditors swirling around him. He has heard rumors that the friends who he owes money to have hired some heavies to cut fingers off until he pays up but he has exhausted the good will of all of his friends and family.
He does have a plan to get back on track and it begins with going to the home of Harriet Krohn, an older lady who lives alone. He devises a plan to get inside her home and to take anything of value to be sold to a fence. He takes along a gun to intimidate her but when he initiates his plan things go wrong and he finds that he has killed her.
These opening chapters of the book are gritty and introspective, exploring his mentality at each stage of the crime. To me these chapters were overly detailed and descriptive in their efforts to convey how it felt to commit the crime and there was little surprise in the way the robbery attempt unfolded.
The aftermath of the crime is at least a little less predictable as along with settling his debts he makes an unexpected purchase. The chapters that follow explain its significance, interspersing events from the past with the action from the present day, and we get a sense not only of the purchase’s importance but also of the way his life crumbled to pieces putting him in the predicament he finds himself in at the start of the novel.
Once again there is little in the way of surprise in the details of that journey. This is not because Charlo Torp’s story is uninteresting but Fossum had already indicated what that story was in the letter that is placed at the start of the novel. This section of the story adds more detail but as we have already been told about the choices he has made, this feels a little redundant.
It does however help to establish and develop the relationship between Charlo and his teenage daughter Julie that sits at the heart of the novel and that struck me as its most effective and moving element. The pair begin the novel estranged from one another and we see him attempt to reconnect with her and trying to make up for the past.
Charlo’s desire to reform for his daughter in order to reconnect with her is one of the more appealing aspects of the novel and helps to make him a more sympathetic figure, even if we despise the crime he has committed. Fossum is particularly successful in exploring how the crime affects that relationship in both positive and negative ways and I think that relationship is one that becomes more complex and rewarding the more we consider it.
The reader may well want that reconciliation to be successful but we never forget that a murder has been committed and that Inspector Sejer is working on the case in the background. As this story is told from Charlo’s perspective we are largely oblivious to what he is doing or the progress he has made and when Sejer does act we cannot be sure of exactly what he has learned or how he has come to that conclusion.
This setup reminds me a little of Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon which similarly has the detective’s investigation playing out in the background. That novel ends however with a short coda in which Inspector French reveals his reasoning while here we remain largely oblivious as to precisely how Sejer has put everything together to reach his conclusion although we may have a good guess.
Typically an inverted mystery works by encouraging the reader to piece together how the killer will be caught by noting the loose ends they have left that tie them to the crime. Certainly Charlo does leave some of these for the detective to catch onto but there is little mystery in what those threads are or how they could be used to get back to him leaving little in the way of a puzzle for the reader to solve.
Inspector Sejer features so little in the novel that I am not able to come to much of a conclusion about how I feel about him as a character. I certainly appreciated his cool and patient approach to detection which makes me curious to try a story that focuses on him to see those methods in action but did not feel like I got to know him. That is probably appropriate though for this type of story given that our focus should be on the criminal.
Whether I feel motivated to seek out further Sejer stories soon is a more open question. I enjoyed parts of this, even if it did not pack much in the way of surprise, but I did feel that this would have been better suited to being presented in a shorter form such as a novella. There are some interesting ideas here but the book fails to cultivate much sense of mystery and, as a result, it never surprised or truly engaged me.