The crimes in “The Caller,’’ Karin Fossum’s new Norwegian thriller, are pranks, but they’re hardly harmless. In fact, they’re so fiendishly creative they eat away at their victims long after the unsettling events, and the unraveling of their peace of mind, the shattering of their false senses of security, is the real subject of this terrific new book by one of Scandinavia’s great mystery writers.
Like a great dish assembled with just a few high-quality ingredients, the sure-handed Fossum concocts a relatively simple plot unfurled at a relaxed pace. The story involves the twisted inventions of a seemingly stock character —
The tricks the teen plays on the townspeople would be admirably clever if they weren’t so messed up and morbid: He douses a sleeping infant in blood, triggering a seismic crack in the marriage of her parents; he sends a hearse to the house of a man paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease, causing his struggling wife to anguish over whether her life would be better if the man were indeed dead; he calls in an obituary for a popular mother who just celebrated her 70th birthday, quietly unnerving a self-confident woman.
THE CALLER: An Inspector Sejer Mystery
The teen, Johnny Beskow, is not all monster, though that side of him can be pretty impressive. The silent loathing he directs at his mother is medieval at times, as when he debates whether to scald her with boiling water or hot fat: “Hot fat is definitely more effective. Fat burns into the skin for a long time, it doesn’t evaporate like water. But, it occurred to him, we probably don’t have fat,” Johnny thinks, and promptly begins searching the kitchen larder.
At times Johnny just seems a typical awkward teenager, and at others a kind and tender grandson who shares long quiet reposes with his shut-in grandfather.
To cook up such wicked pranks clearly takes a bright mind, but what Johnny is too immature to see, too obsessed to sense, is how this game-playing is destined to get out of hand, and inevitably turn to claim him, too. As is so true of life, the characters who respond with humor to Johnny’s heartless tricks are least affected, while those consumed by anger or fear become too blind to see it is their own emotional weaknesses causing such grief.
The most compelling case is that of the couple whose domestic idyll is destroyed by Johnny’s bloody prank on their baby. Their fear and outrage give way to suspicion — of each other — and the marriage swiftly crumbles. The husband, Karsten, torments himself about their responsibility for the baby, not just in the wake of the blood incident, but throughout life: “If she doesn’t succeed in life, is it my fault? And how, Karsten Sundelin thought, how can I get out of all this?”
That is an accomplishment by Fossum, to place the most memorable action of a crime thriller inside her characters, the battle not simply between good and evil, but among the conflicting emotions that roil the most normal of us.
Skillfully, Fossum allows Sejer to perform his investigation without commandeering the book. His calm presence lets the reader focus on the interior dramas within the other characters. Sejer is a comfortable companion, and it’s another mark of Fossum’s talent that she contains his role in “The Caller’’ without subduing his character.
Such restraint in the crime category, where too many writers seem compelled to steep their detectives in pathos, is refreshing. But even more encouraging is the ease with which Fossum takes unusual material and sketches a compelling story, confident that human drama, not violent action, can carry the plot.