Fiction – print. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Harvill Secker, 2012. Originally published 1995. 314 pgs.
Walking along the icy riverbanks late one afternoon, Eva and her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, discover a dead body bloated from weeks in the river floating near the surface. Emma instructs her mother to call the police, and Eva complies instructing her daughter to wait patiently outside the phone booth while she makes the call. Instead, she calls her father – never once mentioning the dead body – before taking an overweight Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, which the little girl asserts they can now afford because her mother suddenly has money.
An elderly woman eventually alerts the authorities to the location of the body, and Inspector Konrad Sejer arrives on the scene to discover the body is that of a man named Egil who worked at the local brewery and has been missing for months. The man’s disappearance was cloaked in mystery – his wife insisted he loved his car, but both she and Egil’s son assert that the man disappeared when he went to meet a buyer for the car. And now that his body has surfaced and found to have fifteen stab wounds, Inspector Sejer begins to wonder how a disappearance presumed to be about money could have resulted in such a personal and violent attack.
At the same time, Inspector Sejer is investigating the murder of a known prostitute by the name of Maja who was found dead in her apartment just before Egil went missing. The case has gone cold, and there are few leads as to which one of Maja’s johns killed her. The only connection between the two cases is Eva, who Inspector Sejer eventually learns was the first one to find Egil’s body and was the last person to see Maja alive.
It is fairly obvious from the beginning who at least one of the killers is, but Fossum is far more interested in the how and, most especially, the why the killer did what they did. In fact, Fossum’s book follows a rather unique structure blending the killer’s confession with the investigation of the crime so the resulting narrative jumps from past to present as pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
It took me about a hundred pages to find my footing and it felt like Fossum was struggling, as well, since she uses the third person narrative throughout of the book. I can’t set aside mystery novels after a certain point because I have to know whodunit.
Yet, in this case, I couldn’t give up on the book because I had to know whydunit. And the physiological exploration of why as it unfolded in the second half of the book was well worth sticking with the book because while I cannot say I was shocked by the ending, I thought the way she tied everything together in the end was very clever. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of Fossum’s novels follow me home from the library, especially since this is the first book in a series.
Finally, I do have to comment on the translation by James Anderson. I usually find with some of the lesser known Scandinavian crime writers that their work is translated into British English rather than American English. Obviously, I’m more than capable of adapting to the few differences – boot instead of trunk, phone box instead of phone booth – but there were words here and there that I had to look up to make sure I was understanding correctly. The context provided by the rest of the sentence failed me, I guess, because I wouldn’t have classified these words as slang. (And, dummy me, I returned the book before remembering to write them down.) But this was more of a quirk I noticed than a complaint, and it shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to pick up Fossum’s novel.