Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When the Devil Holds the Candle, by Karin Fossum

By the time I'd finished with Thomas Mann's novellas, I needed a bit of easier -- if not lighter -- reading, so I resumed my foray into Nordic Crime.  When the Devil Holds the Candle is the third of Fossum's Detective Sejer series to be translated into English and the third that I've read. Books #1 and #7 of 10 in the series have not been translated, which begs the question, why not?  Is there some aspect of them so Norwegian as to defy translation?

Detective Inspector Konrad Sejer made his appearance quite late in this story, and when he ambled onto the scene, I struggled to remember him from Fossum's two earlier novels. I confused him other Scandinavian detectives who have more striking character traits.  Compared to the Swedish and Icelandic detectives I've been following -- chain-smoking, junk food-munching, vodka-swilling, depressive divorcees -- Sejer is an altar boy. He allows himself one cigarette per day. He is widowed, not divorced, and his children appear to be well-adjusted and to love him. He frets that the behavioural psychologist he's now dating occasionally acts outrageously, and he regrets that he didn't make more of an effort to teach his 80kg Leonberger dog more manners. In short, he's not a highly memorable character. The instant I realised this, I remembered a radio interview with Karin Fossum that I'd heard some months ago. Konrad Sejer is uninteresting by design. Ms. Fossum doesn't want us to focus upon the detective -- she's much more interested in the people who commit the crimes, and the impact of their actions on society. Honestly, Kollberg the dog, although he does little more than knock Sejer over and drool excessively, is a more distinctive fellow.

The fact that her detective is unremarkable and her "criminals" so ordinary are actually what makes Fossum's work so intriguing. It's fascinating to read about psychopaths, but honestly (and thankfully), they commit only a small fraction of homicides. The devil in Karin Fossum's neighbourhood is much more mundane, and in that way, is actually more disturbing. I put her criminals in quotes, because I'm not even sure they deserve to be in prison. Even when they break the law in this novel, it's only by accident, by coincidence, that their actions have serious consequences.

Andreas and Zipp are two young men, barely out of their teens. Best friends, under-employed or unemployed, always on the lookout for enough money to buy a few beers. Andreas sees a young woman pushing a baby in a pram one night, her handbag resting on top of the baby. When he jumps out and grabs her bag, she loses her grip on the pram, and it goes over an embankment. Zipp tries but fails to stop it. Both boys flee as the woman scrambles down to retrieve her baby, who is screaming but otherwise not visibly hurt. A couple of days later, the baby dies, and until an autopsy shows the head injury, the doctor is ready to write it off as a crib death.

Later, the boys stalk an older woman as she walks back to her home on a dark street. Andreas follows her into the house and menaces her with a knife, demanding money. They struggle, she gives him a shove, and he falls down her cellar stairs. His neck broken, he lies in a paralysed, tangled heap on her cellar floor. For days. The old woman, it turns out, is a slightly off-kilter and very fearful person. She's not a sadistic lunatic -- she does keep Andreas warm and fed -- but his attack has only exacerbated her paranoia and reclusiveness.  No surprise there. He taunts her for holding him hostage, but she quite sanely reminds him that he is responsible for the present situation, which is most unpleasant for all concerned.

Zipp, meanwhile, is blundering his way through police questioning, not wanting to admit involvement in either crime, although he also wonders why Andreas never emerged from the old lady's house. Andreas' mother, a divorcee, is building a veritable sales pitch for her missing son, asserting to the police that he's a choirboy, really, and not an irresponsible juvenile delinquent. Like most mothers in such a situation, she repeats like a mantra, "I know my son!"  Her ex-husband makes no such claim: "He's my son, but I don't really know him. Sometimes I think there's no-one inside him to know."  I have the sense that most cops would say these statements ring perfectly true:  The defensive mother who says she knows her son and knows that he is incapable of doing wrong (she doesn't, and he isn't), and the weary father who says he no longer has any clue who his son is (and yet he probably sees the boy far more clearly than his ex-wife.)

And then we have Fossum's cops, Sejer and his colleague, Skarre. Another author would have given them superior acuity and skill, the instinct to put disparate pieces of the puzzle together, but these two Norwegians are good, decent, ordinary crime-fighters. They are dealing with a missing person report, but as they point out to Andreas' frantic mother, young men of 20 or so frequently take off on junkets here or there, and he is, after all an adult. They are dealing with the mother of the dead infant, but she arrives at the station several days after Andreas' disappearance and only slowly recalls enough information to connect her bag-snatching with Andreas and Zipp. Zipp bungles his interviews but adamantly denies any knowledge of either case. In the end, when circumstances have played themselves out, Sejer and Skarre can only look back and put the pieces together in retrospect, and even then, there are gaps in what the characters will ever know.

If this book lacks real heroes or villains, or tidy closures, that's just Fossum's art imitating life. She's not interested in Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lecter. Pre-meditated murder? Not in her book. Life just gets out of hand for these folks. Still, Fossum's characters are compelling in their ordinariness -- I had no desire to set the book down, even though I never expected a thrilling or surprising conclusion. I still wanted to follow them through.

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