Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $24
Translated by Kari Dickson
I am a terrible mystery reader. I usually don’t try to guess whodunnit. And if I do guess, it’s usually wrong. I was convinced three-fourths of the way through “Hell Fire” that I knew what was going to happen and why. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
What Norwegian writer Karin Fossum does is put all her strength and energy into creating her characters. They are nuanced and valid. They are happy and sad, mournful and joyful, anxious, idiotic, stubborn, selfish and selfless, quirky and straightforward. The first time I read one of her books, I thought the plot was rather plain but the characterizations were wondrous.
I convinced myself I knew what the plot was because I forgot Fossum’s strength. That is not to say the plot of “Hell Fire” is plain; I just tried to make it too convoluted. I was concerned with a false symmetry when I should have remembered human nature. If you are a reader who likes plot over all else, open your mind to character as well.
Inspector Konrad Sejer has starred in eleven other novels. He and his team are a smoothly working machine. Their personalities hardly make a dent in this book. The main focus is on two separate storylines, which, you may guess, eventually both become Sejer's remit.
The bodies of Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her almost five-year-old son, are found in a trailer on a farm. They were murdered. As Bonnie’s life is examined in one of the narratives, she appears almost angelic. She hates the fact that she has to put Simon in childcare, but she has to work. She’s a household assistant for medically disabled people. Mostly she cleans their houses. As a bonus, because she’s such a nice person, she talks with them, runs errands, and provides a respite from loneliness. She thinks the price she pays is that her son is anxious and suffers from separation anxiety. His father left the family for a much younger lover when Simon was very young, and that hasn’t helped. There’s never enough money for things they need, never mind things they want.
The second narrative also features a mother and son duo, although they are much older. Mass is in her fifties and Eddie is twenty-one. He has an emotional disability. Without his mother to act as buffer and housekeeper for him, his social ineptness would be overwhelming. Although it is not obvious what this has to do with the murder of Bonnie and Simon, their story is creepily moving. Mass tries her best and Eddie is very trying.
It seems that Sejer and his crew are slowly investigating the murders, but it seems slow only because there is so much storytelling in-between the investigative parts. As the police uncover various aspects of Bonnie and Simon’s lives, the story bounces back to when they were alive to substantiate whatever was discovered.
If this were a music piece, it would be played by melancholic violins. Perhaps Barber’s Adagio for Strings with its thrilling crescendo and diminuendo.