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HELL FIRE by Karin Fossum: Book Review

Hell Fire is one of the five best mysteries I’ve read this year.  In fact, I would remove the genre qualifier and say it’s one of the five best novels I’ve read this year.

The protagonist, Police Inspector Konrad Sejer, works in a small community outside Oslo.  The crime has Sejer shaken as he has never been before.  Two corpses are found in a broken-down trailer on a farm.  The victims are a woman, Bonnie Hayden, and a child, possibly hers, although there’s no identification for the youngster.  Looking at the child’s body, clothed in a sweatsuit, bloodied and with multiple knife wounds, it’s impossible for the inspector to tell its sex.

The story goes back and forth between two sets of people.  We first meet Eddie Malthe and his mother Mass.  Eddie is twenty-one, an overweight young man with developmental delays who is unable to hold even a menial job.  His mother takes care of him with total devotion and patience, but since they’re alone in the world she worries what will happen to him when she dies.

Mass has told her son that his father left them when Eddie was a young boy.  Eddie doesn’t really remember the man, whom his mother has told him died years earlier after starting another family in Copenhagen, but he has a photo of him hanging in his bedroom that he looks at every night.  His obsession is to get enough information from his mother to allow him to find his father’s grave so that he may lay flowers on it, and he never tires of asking her to do this.

Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her young son, also live by themselves.  She works as a home health aide for a charity that services the elderly and disabled, always being given the most difficult cases because of her gentle and caring behavior.  Her life isn’t an easy one, but the love and strong bond between mother and child make things a bit easier.

As Sejer questions Bonnie’s best friend, the clients she visits on a weekly basis, the farmer on whose land the trailer was located, and her parents, he can find no one with any animosity toward her, no reason for the deaths of this mother and her child.  But someone must be hiding something.

Karin Fossum’s writing is flawless, and the characters she writes about are totally realistic.  There’s a wonderful interview with her in the online British magazine Independent, in which she talks about her outlook on life and her writing.  She tells the interviewer that she is no good with plots (something which with I definitely disagree), so she concentrates on “the yearnings of life’s also-rans, and how fragile minds fracture when seclusion or routine is disturbed.”

Hell Fire is a moving, tragic story of lives on parallel tracks that must inevitably collide.  It’s a must-read for its look into the hearts and minds of people who do things with the best of intentions, only to see them lead to death and destruction.

You can read more about Karin Fossum at many sites on the web; the interview mentioned above may be found at

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




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