NOTE: This review contains a discussion of the novel's ending which contains SPOILERS. It will be signaled in the text, but BE WARNED.
For nine tenths of the way, this Inspector Sejer novel is a slow-burning procedural with the haunting psychological dread of a horror novel. Tommy, a 16 month old boy, drowns in a pond at the bottom of his garden. The young parents are distraught, in diametrically opposite ways, but Sejer senses something off-kilter in the mother's tearful responses. Slowly and deliberately, Fossum takes you through his investigation, but also through the strains on the marriage between the emotive Carmen, who wants to move on, and the shy, quiet Nicolai, who is mourning the loss of his son. Most importantly, she lets Carmen reveal herself to you, so that as Sejer continues his investigation you are, as much as he is, trying to decide what really happened.
It's a tightly measured piece of writing, dropping hints, then leading you away from them, and the whole process drags on while Sejer has his own health worries and the marriage
of the two young parents slowly dissolves. And then, when it looks like all be will settled, there is a twist, and that twist seems to me to be so contrary as to what has come before to
be deeply dissatisfying. It is set-up carefully, in retrospect, and if you buy that then you will appreciate its irony, but basically I find it very hard to buy, for reasons I will explain now.
SPOILER ALERT: These reasons constitute a complete SPOILER so if you would prefer to judge the novel for yourself stop reading now and come back to it when you've finished and see if you agree.
I have three problems with the denouement of the novel. First, Carmen's father gives her a diary to help her deal with her 'grief'. Fossum uses the diary brilliantly, because through its entries we get a good idea of the very narrow, self-centered world-view Carmen possesses, and her ability to construct her reality along those lines. But for that very reason, I found it unlikely in the extreme that she would actually pen a 'confession' to her diary, regardless of how she justifies her deed after the fact.
Second, even if you accept that Carmen was likely to make such an entry in her diary, it seems to me completely impossible she would misplace the diary, and let it be taken to the bonfire pile. Fossum has set it up so that we can assume Carmen's new partner, Anders, has found the diary and is throwing it out with other old papers...but that would mean he went through the living room desk, and most likely found the diary, and most likely would know it for what it was. So would he read it? It's possible, as you can interpret the scene as Fossum wrote it as implying Anders is a little uneasy and wants to get rid of the evidence, which means he also accepts Carmen's actions. Or else he's just got an overdose of Nordic OCD. I look to the former interpretation, since he'd be unlikely to throw away a newish diary as being rubbish, but would he be likely to cover up for Carmen?
Third, even if you assume that he would, or that it's all an accident, the final coincidence of Sejer's dog Frank pulling that diary off the bonfire pile and bringing it to Sejer is just too neat for me. Fossum has set it up, with Frank bringing back trophies, and she leaves it nicely, with the reader filling in the future, but it's all too pat, and as I said, for me it just doesn't work.
The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846558542
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)