Karin Fossum is a quietly disturbing storyteller who sets her stories in ordinary small Norwegian communities where everything seems wholesome and well-0rdered but, when a crime is committed and the gentle, wise detective Konrad Sejer comes to sort it out with his sidekick, Jacob Skarre, we realize that surface is deceptive, that in fact the mild-mannered and almost boringly normal residents have hidden depths and dark secrets. Though perhaps “secrets” is the wrong word. A lot of what’s wrong is perfectly visible; it’s just that people prefer to think their community is a better place than it really is.
In this case, a happy couple, having a pleasant meal together, assume their infant daughter is quite safe in her baby buggy parked in the back yard. (The Scandinavian practice of leaving babies outdoors was in the news in the US a few years ago when a couple left their infant parked on a sidewalk outside a restaurant in New York; worried citizens called the police, who charged the surprised couple with child endangerment. In this case, though it seems less reckless than leaving a child alone in a city, the American reader is torn between “something awful is going to happen” and “are they crazy?”) When they finally begin to think it’s time they brought the child indoors, they are horrified to find her covered in blood. After a frantic race to the hospital they learn it’s not her blood. Someone has played a cruel hoax, the first of many.
It’s a well-told story, and thought provoking (though there is some violence so awful that it makes me hesitate to recommend the book unreservedly). We get to see how the hoaxes affect their victims, including the strain it puts on the young married couple in the opening scenes. We learn who is likely responsible for them, and get a sense of how it gives an unhappy teenager with a difficult life a sense of power and control. The best character in the story, a girl with short red hair who shouts insults at passers by and notices everything, breaks out of this mold by being thoroughly aware, thoroughly herself, and instinctively good without being a goody two-shoes.
Fossum takes rather ordinary materials and, when putting them under a magnifying glass, brings out a lot of emotional texture and nuance that lends her books a kind of suspense that isn’t matched by thrillers with demonic killers and high body counts. Though acted out on a small stage and with few words, the impact is amplified. In part, it is the social pressure to support a communal appearance of normality and happiness that works against people taking responsibility for looking closer at things that really aren’t healthy in the community. And while evil is small-scale and human, truly awful things can grow out of a moment’s impulse.
Sejer is an unusual character in that he is thoroughly decent, a deeply kind and peaceful man, who acts more like a physician trying to heal a community than a crime fighter matching wits with villains. What Fossum finds so fascinating isn’t how evil people can be; it’s the way that small holes deliberately torn in the social fabric of a community can widen and unravel in ways that nobody can predict.
Not long ago, Maxine Clarke said something in a comment once that I remembered when reading this book – that there is something “fabular” about Fossum’s books, and I felt that very strongly here, particularly in the opening scene when an idyllically happy couple live in a perfect little house beside a deep dark wood . . . and that fairy tale pattern is repeated later. It’s never a good sign in Fossum’s books when the language grows simple and the primary colors a bit too bright:
The mother was in the kitchen. She couldn’t see the pram through the window, but she wasn’t concerned about her sleeping baby, not for an instant.
Pottering about thoroughly content, she was light as a ballerina on her feet, not a single worry in her heart. She had everything a woman could dream of: beauty, health, and love. A husband, a child, a home and garden with rhododendrons and lush flowers. She held life in the palm of her hand.
There’s something almost vengeful in the way Fossum describes this image that is as glossy and false as an Ikea advertisement, as if contentment is for suckers. Her touch was a bit lighter in earlier books, the stories somewhat less schematic. It’s funny, because the parts that read like a fable seem a bit clumsy in contrast to the psychological nuance and acute observation of other parts of the book.