‘The Caller’ by Karin Fossum


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.

14 thoughts on “‘The Caller’ by Karin Fossum

  1. Wow, I definitely must read one of Fossum’s book. Can I start with this one or do you recommend starting with the first one of the series?


  2. You could definitely start with this one. I am reading them out of order. The inspector features so little in these books that I do not think it really matters which one you read first. Purists, of course, may argue otherwise.


  3. I really loved this one too Kim – it was my personal selection for the International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction but it didn’t even make the shortlist. I still think it was better than the book that one 🙂


  4. I’ve enjoyed this author’s books for many years too, Kim, since they were first translated….and I liked this one very much, too.
    re the TOOO syndrome (translated out of order), I had to read the series in a funny order, as translated, but now that the first in the series has just come out in English, In The Darkness, new readers to this author can have the luxury of chronology. The inspector features more in the first two or three than the later ones (or at least, his personal life).


  5. I must try her ,I got sent he new one but had just read a few crime novels at time ,like the fact you say it is cleverer than most of the books from that region ,all the best stu


  6. This sounds excellent & I, too, am a big Karin Fossum fan. Like Maxine above, I have read her books out of order due to availability of translated editions. I don’t think it has affected my enjoyment of them one bit!


  7. Not to be pedantic, Stu, I dont actually say it is cleverer than most books from that region (I am yet to read a dud book from the Nordic countries), but it is the cleverest crime book I have read this year. I like the approach Fossum takes — I think it appeals to my left-leaning tendencies. 🙂


  8. I had an exchange with Bernadette, on Twitter, who informed me In The Darkness is the first in the series… I have a copy and will look forward to reading it soon.
    I do remember that first book I read — which was the first to be translated — did feature Sejer much more, but the last two (and the most recent to be translated) he hardly showed his face! I wonder why she’s chosen to give him more of a back seat these days…


  9. Finally with my new laptop and a bit of free time I can come and catch up on your reading! Hoorah. I am loving the new look of the site, its so clean and light and the font is lovely too.
    Anyway, this book… I have to say you have sold it to me. The only problem for me is the fact that it is so far down the line in the series and I am a stickler for reading in order, some call it pedantic, ha. You’ve said in other comments it stands alone so maybe I should just bite the bullet? I also think that the idea of this evil prankster would be interesting compared to a normal killer whodunnit too.


  10. Hi Simon, nice to hear from you! And glad you like the new-look site!
    I don’t think it is necessary to read these books in any particular order — plus, I’ve not really been able to do so anyway, because, as Maxine points out above, they have not be translated in order! This one can certainly be read as a standalone. It’s a good taster for her style anyway, and if you like it enough you can go back and read them in order now that the first book, In The Darkness, has been translated.


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