Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 296 pages; 2012. Translated from the Norwegian by K.E. Semmel. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Norwegian author Karin Fossum is quickly turning into one of my favourite crime writers. The Caller is her tenth novel in the Inspector Sejer series — and the third one I have read. Even though the books feature the same detective they are not strictly police procedurals. Instead Fossum’s perceptive — and empathetic — eye turns towards the perpetrator and the victims as she explores the cause and effect of often horrendous crimes.
A baby drenched in blood
The Caller begins in spectacular fashion when an odd crime is carried out. A young couple, Lily and Karsten Sundelin, are eating a meal indoors while their baby sleeps peacefully in her pram in the garden. When Lily goes to bring baby Magrete inside she feels a terrible foreboding. The baby is drenched in blood. The understandably distraught parents assume she is bleeding from the mouth and rush her to hospital. But once she is checked over, the nurses reveal the baby is unharmed — and that the blood is not hers.
Cue a police investigation, headed by Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. Had Lily or Karsten done something to upset someone? Was this an act of revenge? Had a former jealous partner wanted to scare them? Or was it a woman who had lost her child in a terrible way?
Later that evening Sejer finds a hand-delivered postcard on his doorstep bearing the message: “Hell begins now”. It has a glossy photograph of a wolverine on the front. “There will be more attacks,” he tells his colleague. “We’re dealing with a beast of prey.”
And he is right: this shocking incident turns out to be the first in an increasingly bizarre string of brazen and cruel “pranks” that terrorises a wide cast of unsuspecting victims. The book charts the ensuing cat and mouse game between the perpetrator and Sejer and Skarre, who try to track him down.
Portrait of a tormentor
It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that the perpetrator is a young man, Johnny Beskow, who still lives at home with his alcoholic mother, whom he loathes. We meet him in chapter 4 and we discover how he chooses his victims, and why.
But Fossum does not paint things in black and white: Beskow may be carrying out criminal acts, he may wish his mother was dead, he may be filled with malice — but there are reasons for his warped worldview. And he’s not without the capacity to love: he dotes on his elderly grandfather, whom he visits regularly, and the caged guinea pig he keeps in his bedroom.
Essentially The Caller is not a whodunit, but a whydunit: what makes a young man carry out such spiteful crimes on random victims? And will he eventually get his comeuppance?
The human cost of crime
This neatly structured book interleaves Beskow’s storyline with that of the police investigation and that of the victims, both before and after the crime is carried out — it is fascinating to see how the Sundelin’s marriage begins to crumble as each partner copes with the crime in different ways; Karsten is angry and eaten up by a desire for revenge; Lilly’s fragile vulnerability turns her into a nervous wreck and she can no longer function normally. And it is equally fascinating to see how Beskow rationalises his actions — and how his conscience begins to bother him.
But it is the exquisitely planned plot which makes this novel an exceptional one: the impossible-to-guess double-twist ending left me gasping in shock.
Ripe with intelligence, suspense and psychological insight, The Caller is the cleverest and most involving crime book I’ve read this year.