This is one of those books you do not necessarily read for enjoyment. It is a book best described as “thought-provoking” or even “disturbing”, maybe in the way that Gone, Girl encouraged readers to look into themselves. I should not have been surprised. I read a couple of Karin Fossum’s earlier titles a few years back and should have guessed that this one too would be heavy on psychology and introspection. And, of course, it is. But I don’t mean for any of those comments to be interpreted negatively. Ms Fossum’s many fans will love this book, and those of us still not too enamoured do have to accept that it is an ingenious project which few other writers would dare to attempt.
Charlo Torp is the hero of the book, though calling him a hero is rather too generous, because he is one of Norway’s failures. The source of his failings is his gambling addiction; an addiction which lost him his job as a car salesman and cost his family their savings, including the money his daughter had saved to buy a horse. Now his wife is dead and his daughter wants nothing to do with him. He lives an isolated existence on his own, ever fearful that his bookie’s henchmen are going to pay him a visit, reclaim the money he owes or failing that trim one or two fingers with the time-honoured secateurs. I suppose we might all have been tempted to consider anything rather than that.
Charlo sees the robbery of an elderly woman he has seen occasionally in a café in the town as his means of keeping his fingers. Like student Raskornikov in Dostoievsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, he is certain that he can pull off the crime without arousing the suspicions of the police and without any resistance from the old girl. He feels he can accomplish the crime with no problems, and that in his circumstances he is totally justified. His needs for money are greater than the woman he intends to rob.
However, anyone who has spent a few years reading an array of crime fiction is very soon aware that Charlo is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. He buys a big bunch of flowers from a florists in the centre of town which he assumes the old lady will accept as his calling card. On that Charlo is correct. She opens the front door wondering who in earth would have sent her flowers. And it works, though I would have warned him in advance not to assume too readily that the girl who put the bouquet together would fail to remember the male who bought such an expensive bunch of flowers just before the shop closed for the night.
The robbery quickly becomes a botched job. Failing to provide the old lady with an unanswerable case for the redistribution of her wealth it should not have surprised him overmuch when the old girl objects to him emptying her purse and confiscating whatever else takes his fancy. She protests and he feels he has no alternative but to bash her over the head a couple of times with the revolver he has brought with him in case he needs to frighten her into acquiescence. And hence we have the murder of Harriet Krohn. But Charlo does rather compromise his criminal competence by bashing into another car as he leaves the scene of the crime. Still, at least Charlo has the money he needs to pay off the bookie, and rekindle his daughter’s affection with the horse he owes her.
Thereafter, much of the book, like Dostoievski’s, is devoted to Charlo’s introspections as he seeks to convince himself that his actions were honourable, and the old girl’s demise is justified insofar as her objections were unreasonable. Moreover, the robbery has brought him together with his daughter who he idolises and allows her to embark on a careers as a show jumper. It has also got him a part-time job as a handyman in the stables where his daughter keeps the horse. Another big chunk of the book provides us with an idiot’s guide to horses and dressage just in case it comes in handy – which it does.
And so for much of the book Charlo is encouraged to believe that he is going to get away scot-free. He watches the news to see if the police have any clues as to the identity of the murderer. He tends to scoff when he learns that Inspector Sejer is to lead the investigation, a man who has yet to confront a crime he cannot solve. Even when Sejer does finally pay Charlo a call, our hapless villain is still convinced he can escape justice. But as the evidence mounts and Sejer’s visits become more regular Charlo does ultimately accept that his time is up. Here again, this book shifts dramatically from the standard crime fiction novel. Sejer’s appearances are restricted to the interviews with Charlo. We see nothing, and know nothing, of his investigation.
I do not need to stress that there are some elements of the book which are much too attenuated and which I could have done without. On the other hand you have to accept that much of that content is instrumental in building up your identification with Charlo, whether than be positive or negative. And so to the central achievement of the book which is to remind us that most crimes are not committed by professionals with all the necessary guile and expertise to escape apprehension. Many, probably the majority, are committed by some chancer, like Charlo, who kids himself he can accomplish the crime successfully and not get caught.
I suspect that Karrin Fossum is probably also correct in guessing that thereafter they will become overburdened by attempts to override their consciences. So valuable premises yes, but they do not make for an entirely enjoyable read.