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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Caller’

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THE CALLER
By Karin Fossum
Houghton Mifflin, $25
256 pages

The scene is sunny and domestic, with the baby asleep in the garden and the young mother happily preparing dinner for her husband.

Suddenly the infant is covered with blood and tranquility has exploded into the fear that pervades Karin Fossum’s pages. What makes the first chapter so chilling is that the infant is unharmed although the psychological damage inflicted on the parents is considerable. The baby is the victim of a sadistic prankster who follows up with a postcard to the police on which is scrawled, “Hell begins now.”

And it does.

The peaceful Norwegian village is targeted in an inexplicable and frightening manner. A notice announcing that she has died is sent to an elderly woman. A team from a funeral home arrives in response to a telephoned request to pick up the body of the man who in fact opens the front door to greet them.

Sheep are sprayed orange. A child’s plait is slashed off with a knife. And all the police can do is watch, track suspicions and wait for the next strike. Ms. Fossum is a classic example of the Scandinavian literary talent for cold blood. The reality of the horror is amplified in the death of an 8-year-old boy literally ripped to pieces by seven dogs whose kennel has been left open.

The author follows a dark path of psychological suspense and her miserable teenage protagonist, Johnny Beskow, is a creature of pathos clinging to a hamster for affection, seething with hatred for his indifferent mother, seeking inspiration for his vicious outburst by reading the local newspaper. He is genuinely devoted to his grandfather, the only adult who shows him any compassion, and his bitter alcoholic of a mother fails to realize that she is raising a monster until it is too late. The unhappiness of the boy controls the book, as it moves steadily toward its hideous finale.

The cruelties that Johnny considers “pranks” destroy the lives of his victims, from the Sundelins, the couple whose marriage crumbles after the discovery of their blood-drenched daughter, to Else, the little pigtailed girl who exudes a deadly quality as she sits quietly waiting for revenge. Johnny wallows in his satisfaction over the misery he is causing strangers and his only concern is for his gentle grandfather who has no idea of what he is harboring in his family.

Ms. Fossum is adept at building toward terror while writing crisply unemotional prose. She saves her most bitter irony for the nature of the grandfather’s accidental death, brought about by misbegotten generosity on the part of Johnny’s mother, who bestows on the elderly man the rat poison that her son meant for her. The psychological tangle is such that even when Inspector Sejer solves the question of who did it, there remains the terrible unanswered why.

The inspector has the grim task of unwinding the stranglehold inflicted on the village by the deranged teenager, and he goes about it by seeking to get inside the confused head of the boy.

As the net of circumstances closes around Johnny, it is Sejer who tries to coax a rational explanation from the boy who remains wrapped in hatred for his mother who is now charged with poisoning his grandfather. Johnny exhibits no regret for what he has done to people he didn’t know, insisting these were harmless pranks. What he will not admit is whether he opened the door of the kennels and unleashed seven savage dogs who left only shreds and bones of the small boy who went out hiking and became their prey. While the child’s parents collapse under the impact of the tragedy, the dogs’ owner passionately denies that he left the door unlocked.

There is justice in the fact that the friendship he forms with the man whose baby Johnny left covered in blood brings to an end the teenager’s vicious career. The boy is a sad character, yet Ms. Fossum makes little effort to evoke understanding with her detached study of his twisted mind.

There is no fragment of hope that for Johnny, the world will end in anything but violent death. And there is Else, the imperturbable little girl who lost her pigtails and almost her ears. She who waits and watches as consequences far beyond the power of the police inexorably overtake her attacker.

There is a bitter aftertaste in the thought that Ms. Fossum leaves with the reader that Else and Johnny existed in the same kind of cold darkness.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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