I have found within a relatively short period of time that there are few greater joys than cracking open a Karin Fossum novel. Fossum’s protagonist is an unassuming Norwegian police inspector named Konrad Sejer, a widow with a semi-doting married daughter who has settled into a life divided with equal comfort between the professional and the personal. The older Sejer and the younger Inspector Skarre make for an interesting though not quite odd couple, enjoying some occasional low-key but good-natured banter that does not get in the way of their criminal cases. It is Sejer’s strength that he does not become what he beholds, for he runs into some fairly heinous types, as happens in THE CALLER, the latest in the series to be published in the United States, thanks to the very able and worthy translation talent and effort of K.A. Semmel.
"Fossum has been called 'The Norwegian Queen of Crime,' and one need only pick up any of her fine Inspector Sejer novels to understand why. If you have yet to make the pleasure of her acquaintance, this is an excellent place to start. And it won’t be your last meeting."
The book’s centerpiece is a very complex and disturbed young man named Johnny Beskow, who lives with his alcoholic mother in subsidized housing and seems to teeter dangerously between a touching compassion for his grandfather and pet guinea pig to violent obsessions concerning his mother and a young girl who subjects him to sharp taunting. It is Beskow who is the unknown prankster whose targets --- an infant and an elderly woman, to name but two --- are ultimately physically harmless but carry a strange and cruel mark with them, one that leaves a sharp and unforgettable sting long after they are committed. This is particularly true in the case of the Sundelin family, whose infant daughter Margrete is Beskow’s initial target. Beskow’s act --- pouring blood on the infant while she slept in her backyard --- leaves Margrete’s parents, particularly her mother, feeling extremely vulnerable while turning the almost invisible cracks in the couple’s relationship into deep fissures.
Fossum draws back from Sejer’s investigation to occasionally peek in on the Sundelins, to see how they are doing in the aftermath of Beskow’s gruesome prank, and the answer is…not well. Everyone with whom Beskow comes into contact hardly escapes unscathed; worse, Beskow seems like a powder keg waiting for the opportunity to explode. Fossum knows how to play her audience. At one point, close to the halfway point of the book, there is a vignette that seems to be horribly bizarre in its matter-of-fact cruelty, but that turns out to be a jape, however inappropriate. This is quickly followed, though, by a moment toward which Fossum has been heading since the beginning of the book; from there, all bets are off. Sejer is the target of Beskow’s taunt early on, an implicit “catch-me-if-you-can” challenge that just makes Sejer inclined to do precisely that.
The conclusion seems forgone from the beginning, but there are a number of conclusions --- and tragedies --- that take place in THE CALLER before the final page is read. Not all of them are by any means predictable. Fossum has been called “The Norwegian Queen of Crime,” and one need only pick up any of her fine Inspector Sejer novels to understand why. If you have yet to make the pleasure of her acquaintance, this is an excellent place to start. And it won’t be your last meeting.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 22, 2012