Mystery-thriller book review: ‘The Caller’

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Los Angeles Times

Summer might be drawing to a close, but don’t worry — there’s still plenty of time to squeeze in a few more chills provided by new mysteries and thrillers from Karin Fossum, Tana French and Thomas H. Cook.


Other Scandinavian crime writers may be better known, sell more copies or have more movies made from their work, but no one can thoroughly chill the blood the way Karin Fossum can.

It’s not that Fossum is unknown. The London Sunday Times named her one of the 50 greatest crime writers of all time (Henning Mankell and the pioneering team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were the only other Scandinavians on the list), and her splendid “The Indian Bride” of a few years back won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller.


Yet as “The Caller” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 256 pp., $25), the latest novel to feature Inspector Konrad Sejer and his colleague Inspector Jacob Skarre, demonstrates, this is one writer who very much deserves to be an even bigger deal.

For one thing, Fossum, who was a published poet before she turned to novels, has a restrained, elegant prose style. She’s concerned with building character and motivation, and the fastidious effectiveness of her words is always exactly calibrated.

Fossum’s books are bleak parables and moral horror stories about the impact and pervasiveness of evil, about, as Sejer himself muses this time around, “what was raw and brutal at the heart of every living creature.”

Almost perversely, “The Caller” begins with a scene of pure happiness: A young mother named Lily works in the kitchen with her 8-month-old daughter, Margrete, asleep in her stroller in the backyard. “She had everything a woman could dream of: beauty, health and love,” Fossum writes as the hairs involuntarily rise on the back of our necks. “A husband, a child and a home and garden with rhododendrons and lush flowers. She held life in the palm of her hand.” But not for long.


A few pages later Lily discovers that child drenched in blood. Not her own, as it turns out, for Margrete has not been physically injured. But blood nevertheless, the first of a series of malicious pranks that completely unnerve a small Norwegian town.

When slow and deliberate Inspector Sejer hears about this, he is completely shocked, considering it “something much worse than a cruel joke. It was brazen, calculated and mean, like nothing they had ever seen.” Topping it off is a note found on the inspector’s doorstep: “Hell begins now.”

Soon enough, other similar jokes bedevil the town, like a woman who reads her own death notice in the local newspaper. These events are especially disquieting, Sejer understands, because they are “a form of theft. Security has been stolen from them, and that’s very serious. Without security, life is terribly difficult.”

While the police have a hard time finding the perpetrator, Fossum places the reader under no such constraints. “The Caller” is not a whodunit, so we are introduced almost at once to the baby-faced nihilist behind these actions, a 17-year-old named Johnny Beskow. What Fossum is interested in is getting inside this young man’s head, examining the reasons and motivation of someone delighted at his ability to disrupt an entire community. “Everyone lives on an edge, he thought, and I will push them over.”


Yet no one in this book is omnipotent, the angry victims least of all, but also not the police or even the perpetrator. Events no one foresaw turn the “The Caller’s” last pages into an unnerving study in unlooked-for crime and unexpected punishment. These stories will put you away, no questions asked.

— Kenneth Turan

Turan is a Times film critic.