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Crime Queen cares for people not plot

Karin Fossum is not your typical crime writer. Where many will tell you that the three most important elements of a crime novel are plot, plot and plot, Fossum is much more interested in people and their foibles.

"People always talk about the plot: is it clever, is it smart and so on. I just don't care about the plot," laughs Fossum, "I care about the people, the psychology, the tragedy and sorrow . . . I'm far more interested in the human consequences of people's actions."

The Norwegian author of 16 novels, 10 of which feature her iconic Inspector Sejer, Fossum is one of the brightest lights in the Scandinavian crime-fiction firmament. But Fossum began her writing career as a poet, publishing the award-winning collection Kanskje i morgenher in 1974, at the age of 20.

"The first book of poetry was written while I was working in an institution for mentally retarded people. It's all about them, and what it was like to nurse them and work with them. It's still true that a lot of my experiences, when I write now, come from when I worked in hospitals and institutions."

So why the 20-year delay before she wrote her first crime novel?

"It just happened because I needed more space in which to tell my stories. I never meant it to be a crime story. I wanted to tell a story about two friends, and it turned out to be a crime novel -- mainly because there's a murder, so I decided to add a chief inspector who investigates. And now there have been 10 books with this Chief Inspector Sejer."

Sejer tends to investigate the kinds of crimes that other writers might not notice. In her current novel, The Caller, a community is terrorised by a series of pranks that would barely merit an Asbo. In Fossum's Bad Intentions, no crime is actually committed when a young man decides to kill himself. It's only when his friends decide to cover up what has happened that the police instigate an investigation.

Fossum's relentless cleaving to the authentic experience of ostensibly banal criminality has its roots, yet again, in her own life.

"I have experienced among my own friends a crime of passion," she says sadly. "I knew the victim and I knew the perpetrator. So it's something that I have seen at close range. The killer was a person that I had known for 18 years. But it's one of the reasons, I think, that my books are the way they are."

Karin Fossum's The Caller (Harvill Secker) ¤15.61