Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

“All my life I have imagined that my morals were high, that I was decent and honest and truthful. But what happened to my morals when I was tested?”

I came across a review of Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum at Reading Matters. I’d heard of the book before, and while I’m not that thrilled with Scandinavian crime novels, Kim’s review made me rethink my initial dismissal. Bad Intentions is one in a series of Inspector Sejer mysteries. This is the first I’ve read, but that didn’t seem to matter. Some reviews I read complained about the lack of Inspector Sejer’s presence in the novel, and it’s true that he isn’t around a great deal until closer to the end of the book. This is somewhat unusual for a series novel as readers frequently return to the next novel in order to hang out with a favourite fictional character. The lack of Inspector Sejer’s appearances did not trouble me as I am new to the series, and the story of Bad Intentions is engrossing. Even though there’s not much about Sejer’s personal life here, there’s enough info about his psychology to make him interesting. This is a man who dislikes loose ends:

He liked interrogating people, he liked spotting the lie when it came. A lie had its own pitch, and over many years he had learned to recognise it. He liked the moment when the confession finally spilled out, when all the cards were on the table and the course of events could be mapped out and filed.

The story begins on Friday the 13th of September (not a good sign) with three young men who’ve arrived at an isolated lakeside cabin: Axel is a 25-year-old advertising executive who drives a Mercedes, Philip is a passive druggie who barely manages to hold a menial job at a hospital, and finally there’s Jon, a frail young man with a number of health problems. Jon is currently a resident at a local mental hospital, and he’s been encouraged by his therapist to go off for this weekend with his friends. He’s a nervous wreck and popping anxiety pills every four hours doesn’t seem to help.

Obviously the three have shared childhood memories and are around the same age, but apart from that it’s not easy to see why they maintain this relationship. Axel is a domineering, materialistic character who makes the decisions for all three. He’s a charmer, a born actor and it seems odd that he’d continue, in adulthood, to hang out with Philip and Jon. The ill-groomed Philip’s behaviour is marred by passivity and drug use, and Jon is a tangled, neurotic mess. It’s arguable that Jon and Philip might want to hang out with Axel since he has more independence, but why does Axel want to hang out with these two?

Axel suggests a boat trip onto the lake in the moonlight:

Axel Frimann was looking out of the window. It was almost midnight on 13 September and the moon cast a pale blue light across the water. There was something magical about it all. At any moment, Axel imagined, a water sprite might rise from the depths. Just as the image came to him, he thought he saw a ripple in the water as though something was about to surface. But nothing happened and a smile, which no one noticed, crossed his face.

Three men leave and two return. Can’t say more than that, and then the novel segues into the investigation. The novel peels away layer after layer of deceit, and the mystery becomes not just what happened that night, but the events that led up to that night.

Bad Intentions is a page-turner as it explores the psychology of the relationships between these three young men. One of the reasons the novel appealed is that it taps into a pet theory of mine–that certain combinations of character types can be deadly. The title gives clues to the novel’s moral message. I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” and in this novel, we see three young men–two of whom are weak and malleable who make some very bad choices. Crimes take place within these pages, but at the heart of these crimes lies the question of intention. And how can we know what anyone really intended to happen? We are only left with the consequences.

Axel started listing the good intentions which had motivated them originally. What had followed was bad luck, pure and simple, and beyond their control. In a moment of weakness they had been tricked by one of nature’s whims.

Inspector Sejer and his sidekick Jacob Skarre find that they must unravel a mystery in which intention plays a pivotal role. Their investigation takes them to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital and to the homes of grieving mothers. The best thing about the novel is its different slant on crime. There’s an emphasis on guilt, responsibility and intent, and at one point Inspector Sejer gives a very interesting speech on the subject:

Just because you’re to blame for something doesn’t mean you accept that blame. Or that you feel guilty. Gacy killed more than thirty people, but he said it was like squashing cockroaches. When he was finally caught, he went on about his childhood and how awful it had been. He spoke the following classic line when he was put in prison: “I’m the real victim here.”

My copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the Kindle.

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Fossum Karin

14 responses to “Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

  1. This sounds good and quite typical for her writing. I read one of her books in German, so I don’t know the title and I got another one here. I liked it a lot, found it special, psychlogically convincing and with great atmosphere. The Inspector was also rather in the background.
    Scandinavian crime is better than you think, I think that one problem is that many authors haven’t been translated into English yet and if then not always their best books. There are many who a far better than Nesbø. The Snow Man is so absurd and unconvincing. A good thing of this Scandinavian crime wave is that sooner or later good authors will also be discovered and translated. I also like Åke Edwardson.

    • I liked this one for its psychological aspects (same reason I like Ruth Rendell’s novels).

      I may have read the wrong Scandinavian crime novels. Really didn’t like the Dragon Tattoo books (the first film was riveting but the subsequent 2 bored me stiff). Read one Henning Mankell that wasn’t anything special, but the translation didn’t help.

      • I haven’t read Stieg Larsson. I suppose you didn’t watch the US movies as they are said to be bad compared to the others. I remember my father saying he didn’t understand what the fuss was about after having read the first book. Those Mankell’s I read were quite good I must admit but I read other reviewers who read others and said the same as you, I think it depends which one. I also want to read Camilla Läckberg and Håkan Nesser soon. I have high hopes for both.
        You, know, I don’t think there is such a thing as “Scandinavian crime” -style or content wise. That label is just a marketing strategy, besides, most of them have been writing for decades and are “discovered” now.

        • I won’t even bother with the US films since I didn’t like originals 2 & 3.

          It seems as though publishers here are scrambling for the next Steig Larsson–it’s like the Harry Potter rage.

  2. “I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” ” : one of my favourite too. I really believe a lot of trouble could be avoided if it weren’t so true.
    I’m not going to rush on this one but it seems a good page turner.

    PS : I enjoyed reading Stieg Larson. I agree the first one is better than the two others. I thought the film version was good but not as good as the books. (especially because they eraised the muddy relationship between the two journalists) The actress though, was really the character.

    • I found film #2 extremely frustrating. There the main female character is in a hospital room while we want her out here kicking some ass. Finally, it seemed too manipulative a script and I gave up.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out, and really pleased you liked this one. Your review is spot-on — there’s a lot here about intention and culpability. Murder is only murder when you INTEND to do it, otherwise it’s manslaughter.

    To echo what Caroline said above, I think you’ve probably being reading the wrong Scandi crime novels. Have you read Arnaldur Indriðason? His books, set in Iceland, are dark and moody, and he’s got personal problems of his own — a drug-addicted daughter, a wayward son — to deal with, as well as solving crimes. There’s a lot of social commentary in his work. He’s by far my favourite Scandi author.

    • I have Jar City–although Max @ Pechorin’s Journal wasn’t thrilled about it. I selected it for the title’s imagery and for the fact I can watch the film too.

      • The film is unrelentingly bleak — I watched it a couple of months ago — more so than the book, I think. I read the book when it was first released in paperback, long before Scandi crime was popular, and I just remember being blown away by it — it wasn’t like anything I’d read before. I was so impressed I have followed the series ever since, and generally buy them in hardback when they are released.

  4. I didn’t mention Indridason as I don’t think Iceland is part of Scandinavia, neither is Finland, but maybe I’m a purist. Apart from that, I agree with Kim he is very good.

    • You’re right, technically it’s not part of Scandinavia, but given its long association with Denmark it’s hard not to think of it in those terms.

  5. Jar City sits well in my memory. I must revisit my review. Some books diminish after reading, some grow. Perhaps it was one of the latter.

    I do own the sequel so I must at least have thought it had potential as a series. I saw the film last week coincidentally enough and rather liked it.

    I think of Icelandic fiction as Scandinavian due to the cultural links, but I admit it’s geographically very separated.

    My impression is that Mankell is a solid genre writer. Good but not pushing any boundaries. This sounds in similar territory and I doubt I’ll pick it up – too much noir still unread…

    Larsson always seemed too long to me. I like my crime fiction taut.

  6. leroyhunter

    Something about the whole Steig Larsson phenomenon really bugs me. The books sound like they’re just terrible; certainly the odd pages I’ve read suggest the widespread criticism of his writing is justified.

    BUT – I find myself in a bit of a bind as the US remake of the first one is being directed by David Fincher. Can he turn written dross into cine gold?
    Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVLvMg62RPA

    • Great trailer and the score helps. Not sure if I’ll watch it as from the clip I remember the original film quite well. Watching the remake might become an exercise in comparative technique more than anything else.

      I am always suspicious of some huge film or book phenomenon and that may be unfair of me. I was sent a copy of the first book by a friend and I didn’t like it at all. I did, however, really enjoy the first film, but that’s where it ended. As I mentioned, I found the second film boring.

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