Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Water's Edge, by Karin Fossum

My journey into Nordic Noir started some years back after listening to a radio interview with Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indriðason. He and Karin Fossum have become the authors I reach for when I want a crime story with heart and mind.  I've been working my way through Ms. Fossum's books in chronological order, and The Water's Edge, the eighth in her series of Inspector Sejer novels, takes a bold turn -- for the first time, Konrad Sejer and his partner, Jakob Skerre, confront a perpetrator who is not simply an average Norwegian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, they are tracking a paedophile.
'The Storm', by Norwegian Edvard Munch

A couple out on their Sunday walk in the woods -- the domineering Reinhardt Ris and his obsequious wife, Kristine -- spot the partially clad body of a young boy lying face-down beneath a tree. Reinhardt concludes that the man who had rushed past them earlier must be the killer. He becomes obsessively thrilled with his own role in a  real-life crime investigation, and to Kristine's horror, Reinhardt pauses to snap photos of the dead boy with his mobile phone.

Many of Karin Fossum's characters are morally ambiguous.  Maybe a bit like Edvard Munch's paintings -- lines are blurred, and circumstances are often unclear. Her paedophiles are not entirely unsympathetic, her witnesses can be monstrous, and when a second boy disappears, we can feel the growing panic in the village and the pressure to solve the crimes. The temptation to jump to conclusions is intense. Trust between neighbours erodes, and formerly innocent associations come into question.

Inspector Konrad Sejer, however, will not be rushed, much as he would like this hideous crime behind him. He and Skarre, his younger partner, spend a fair amount of time discussing what might make a paedophile tick; they have divergent opinions on this, with Skarre noting that many of them were themselves abused as children and thus deserving of counselling as much as punishment, and Sejer staunchly toeing the line of Norwegian law -- their sexual drives are criminal, and if they can't control them, they must be incarcerated.  When the conversation comes around to why they're in police work, both men again reveal their distinctive motivations.
Sejer started rolling a cigarette. He allowed himself one only every evening, as befits an exceedingly temperate man. 'A nicer job?' he asked suspiciously. 'Like what?'
'Well, you could have been a pastry chef,' Skarre suggested. 'You could have spent your whole day decorating cream cakes. And making tiny marzipan roses.'
'I could never have been a pastry chef,' Sejer declared. 'Cream cakes are pretty to look at, but they have no stories to tell. What would you have been doing?'
'I would have been a taxidermist.'
'Someone who stuffs dead animals, you mean?'
'Yes. Squirrels, minks and foxes.'
Sejer instinctively picked up his dog and put him on his lap. 'So tell me this,' he said. 'Why are you interested in criminals?'
'It's possible that somewhere deep inside I might be just a tad jealous of them,' Skarre said.
'Jealous? Of criminals?'
'They do what they want. They have no respect for authority: if they want something they just take it and they have nothing but contempt for us. It's a kind of protest, a deep and profound disdain. Personally, I am extremely law-abiding, to the point where it becomes scary, if you know what I mean. Why do you think people are so fascinated by crime?' he went on.'Nothing sells better than murder and the worse it is, the more interested people are. What does that say about us?'
'I'm sure there are many answers to that,' Sejer said, 'and you're just as well placed to provide them as I am.'
'But you must have thought about it?'
'I think it has to do with the image we have of our enemy,' he said. 'All nations have an image of their enemy, you know, something that unites people. During the war we were united against the Germans. It gave us a sense of identity and camaraderie, it made us take action and behave heroically. People were forced to choose sides, and in that way we could tell the good from the bad. But in our wealthy western world where peace and democracy reign, criminals have taken over this role. Their misdeeds unite us, we enjoy plenty of peace and quiet, but we also need excitement and stimulation to make us feel alive. But it's more than that. Every time someone's killed, we experience a kind of fortuitous assurance.'
In their efforts to gain an understanding of what motivates a paedophile, Sejer and Skarre drop in on a man whom they'd caught years ago and who had returned to the community after serving his prison sentence. Again, Fossum takes great pains to make Åkeson an almost likeable fellow, pitiable in his loneliness. His answers to the officers' questions suggest that the sexual preference for small children is like that for the same sex -- it's not something that can be "cured", even though the paedophile might well wish to be rid of it.
'Can I ask you a very personal question?' Skarre asked.
Åkeson leaned forward. 'Of course you can, young man, fire away. I'm no weakling, I just look like one.'
'Have you ever had a relationship with an adult woman?'
Åkeson smiled coquettishly. 'Well,' he said, pausing theatrically as was his style, 'that depends how you define adult. Yes, of course I have. But I must add that she was a terribly delicate little thing. It didn't last very long, I think it was mainly a desperate attempt to be normal; there's nothing we would rather be, we would prefer to be like you. But, dear Lord, I'm a grown man, I turned fifty last year and I know who I am, it can't be denied and I don't want to either.
When the second boy, a morbidly obese lad taunted by his schoolmates, vanishes, Sejer and Skarre interview his mother and come away feeling uneasy about her new boyfriend who, they discover, has a criminal record for defrauding single women. Many people are mumbling about a teacher who receives students -- mostly boys -- at his home after school. Is one paedophile responsible for both crimes? It's difficult to say, as they have no idea where the second child is or who killed the first one, but the excitement and fear is palpable. And Reinhardt Ris is absolutely thriving on it, glued to the television, making multiple calls to the police with "new" information, and instructing Kristine not to discard his growing stack of newspapers.
'Don't throw them away,' he said. 'I need to cut out the articles.'
'What do you mean, cut them out?'She gave him a puzzled look.
'As a matter of fact,' he said solemnly, 'it's terribly interesting, for once, to follow a case right from the start, follow it week by week as it develops. It's like a discipline of some sort.' He ran his fingers through his hair. 'Perhaps I should quit my job at Hafslund and become a crime reporter. I think I've got the bug.'
Kristine shook her head in disbelief.
'When I think about it,' he reasoned, 'I realise that I have never read the news in this way before. I've been superficial. None of the world's misery has ever gripped me. But this has, it's a totally new sensation.' He let himself flop into a chair and grabbed hold of VG magazine.
'But why?' she asked.
'Because we found him, Kristine. It's that simple.'
'But we didn't know him.'
'I feel I know him now. I've been reading about Jonas for days. The whole sequence of events rolls before my eyes like a film.' ...
'Have you deleted all those pictures?' she asked.
He tossed his head. 'Why do you keep going on about them?'
'Have you shown them to people at work?' She moved the frying pan away from the heat.
'What if I have? I don't understand why you're getting so worked up about them, people are naturally curious.'
She turned away again before replying. 'They were never meant for public consumption,' she said. 'And who decided that?'
Suddenly she felt exhausted. She leaned against the cooker and felt the heat from the brown butter waft against her face. 'Common decency,' she whispered. 'Have you never heard of that?'
That's what I love about Karin Fossum's novels. Her characters are all over the common decency spectrum, and their motivations are rarely predictable. And yet, each and every one of them seems like someone who might be living next door.

I just read that Karin Fossum's seventh Konrad Sejer novel, The Murder of Harriet Crohn, published in 2004, has just this year been translated into English. Something to look forward to!

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