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böser wille

18 november 2011

Norwegian novelist Karin Fossum's Den onde viljen appeared in English as Bad Intentions earlier this summer, but we had already gotten the German translation by Gabriele Haefs, Böser Wille. So my introduction to Fossum's crime fiction came via Haefs's spare, unornamented German – ideal for a language-learner like me.

It's a spare, unornamented story, for that matter. Böser Wille is not really a mystery. There are ultimately two dead bodies discovered in different bodies of water. We know from the start how one of them got there. We don't know about the other one for a long time, and we don't know how its late occupant died till the very end of the book. But we do know that something deeply awful weighs on the minds of three young men, and ultimately drives them to disaster.

Böser Wille has a structure reminiscent of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale: three companions behave badly, and get their comeuppance. (The device has been used in many a contemporary crime story, notably A Simple Plan by Scott Smith.) But in Böser Wille the criminals don't get anything out of their crime. They're just idiots.

Despite their idiocy, they're pretty good at avoiding the cops. Fossum's detectives, Sejer and Skarre, have apparently appeared in many a Krimi before, and naturally I have read none of the previous series titles. In the case of the bodies in the lakes, Sejer and Skarre know that something's amiss, but without witnesses or evidence, they're going to have a hard time determining what. Sejer makes the mistake of promising a solution to a victim's mother. Even the mother knows he's promised too much, and she joins with the other victim's mother to precipitate a resolution.

We see the events from most of the possible perspectives: from the point of view of the guilty, the survivors, the police, and even the dead. The mixed perspectives make it harder to tell guilty from victim; some characters are both. There's one pretty thoroughly evil guy; the rest are responsible in part for the deaths of others, and to some extent even for their own. Böser Wille is a morality play, but not in the black-and-white manner of The Pardoner's Tale. Above all, it's a character study; the small amount of procedural in the mix would barely be worth fifteen seconds on an episode of CSI. Fossum is not interested here in detection, but in how a distinctive group of friends can see their lives go terribly wrong. At one point a character says something has happened to him; a listener corrects him: he did something. But that can be a thinner line than we imagine.

Böser Wille is brisk and strong, and I see lots of good reading ahead in catching up with Fossum's series of Krimis.

Fossum, Karin. Böser Wille. [Den onde viljen, 2008.] Translated by Gabrele Haefs. München: Piper, 2011.