I Can See in the Dark by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson

Originally published in 2010 as Jeg kan se i mørket.
English translation published in 2013.

Riktor doesn’t like the way the policeman storms into his home without even knocking. He doesn’t like the arrogant way he walks around the house, taking note of its contents. The policeman doesn’t bother to explain why he’s there, and Riktor is too afraid to ask. He knows he’s guilty of a terrible crime and he’s sure the policeman has found him out.

But when the policeman finally does confront him, Riktor freezes. The man is arresting him for something totally unexpected. Riktor doesn’t have a clear conscience, but the crime he’s being accused of is one he certainly didn’t commit. Can he clear his name without further incriminating himself?

I Can See in the Dark is not the sort of novel that is full of surprises. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it reflects a certain storytelling approach that suggests the grim inevitability of some outcomes so that when that moment comes it feels utterly appropriate.

The only real questions that the reader will have based on the blurb are who was his victim for the crime he did commit and who is he accused of murdering? Given that it is hard to outline the plot in any detail without spoiling those I will instead focus on describing our protagonist.

The novel is told from the perspective of Riktor, a rather bitter and lonely middle-aged individual who works in a nursing home. He is unmarried and has no children, often lamenting his lack of success at talking with people with repeated statements that he needs to find a wife. He hopes that he might form that sort of a connection with Sister Anna, a rather pious nurse who he suggests is the only person at his work who really cares, but seems unable to really talk with her.

Riktor’s own attitude towards his work is largely negative, finding the patients to be pitiful and repulsive. He finds huge amusement in carrying out little moments of cruelty towards his invalid patients including pinching or taunting them, sometimes switching their medications when he is alone with them in their rooms.

Much of his time away from work centers around a public park where he frequently encounters the same familiar faces. He despises most of them, assuming that they are probably being supported by the state and questioning why his taxes should go towards them and speculating about how pitiful their lives must be.

Riktor does not plan to become a murderer. Instead it happens in a moment of uncontrolled anger. He tries to cover up the crime and is terrified when the police show up to arrest him for murder but the terror turns to bafflement when he learns that the crime he is suspected of is one which he has nothing to do with.

Much of the remainder of the book deals with his preparations for trial. Will Riktor be able to present himself well in court and show that he was not involved? In addition there is the question of who is responsible for that murder if not him.

Let’s start with that last question first because I do not want to oversell that idea too much. There is a mystery here for the reader to consider but it sits largely in the background, more wondered about by Riktor than actually investigated. As such there is not a lot of evidence to go on and while I think there is at least a hint as to the killer’s identity, I don’t think it is particularly satisfying and it would not justify reading the book in itself.

Instead our focus is on exploring the character of Riktor and his reactions to the things he learns and his experiences of being in prison. We see how the environment changes him and how he adapts to it, even seeming to thrive there.

It is this section of the book that is the most intriguing because it is here that the reader will likely come closest to having some understanding of Riktor and the impulses that guide him. This is not because he is misunderstood or a victim himself – he repeatedly tells us that he does not have a tragic backstory that explains his problems – but because we see how much he values even the most superficial of connections.

It must be emphasized though that these moments of empathy are just that – moments. Riktor is a tragic figure but he has made conscious decisions to shift his pain and unhappiness onto others for years, tormenting the most vulnerable in society. This makes it quite unsettling and uncomfortable to spend a little over two hundred pages in his company.

There are several other characters in the novel but as the events are filtered through Riktor’s voice they often feel quite remote and distant. This is understandable given that he struggles to connect with others but it does mean that the reader never really connects with them either.

Ultimately the reader’s enjoyment of this book will largely center on how compelling they find him as a character and how much they can tolerate time spent inside his head. While there are some questions to solve, many of the solutions will be pretty apparent through the structure of the novel and I think readers keen on mystery elements will be disappointed.

Looking at it from the perspective of an inverted crime novel, I think it has some points of interest with regards the development of the character’s internal voice and the length feels appropriate. However, because the crime lacks any kind of planning and the cover-up feels so simple, Riktor isn’t much of a criminal mind. Instead we are simply spending time with a sadist and the result is a book that can make for pretty uncomfortable reading. In spite of those complaints however I found this to be a faster, more interesting and complete read than my previous experience of Fossum – The Murder of Harriet Krohn.

The Verdict: An uncomfortable read with a striking, if unpleasant, protagonist.

The Murder of Harriet Krohn by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson

Originally Published 2010
Inspector Sejer #7
Preceded by Black Seconds
Followed by The Water’s Edge

Charlo Torp has problems. 

He’s grieving for his late wife, he’s lost his job, and gambling debts have alienated him from his teenage daughter. Desperate, his solution is to rob an elderly woman of her money and silverware. But Harriet Krohn fights back, and Charlo loses control.

Wracked with guilt, Charlo attempts to rebuild his life. But the police are catching up with him, and Inspector Konrad Sejer has never lost a case yet.

Told through the eyes of a killer, The Murder of Harriet Krohn poses the question: how far would you go to turn your life around, and could you live with yourself afterwards?

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.