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HELLFIRE
by Karin Fossum and Kari Dickson, trans.
Harvill Secker, September 2016
288 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 1846559405


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In caravan in the Norwegian countryside, a mother and her five-year-old son have been discovered, murdered. Their deaths seem utterly motiveless. Who could have wanted this thoroughly decent woman and her little boy dead? What conceivably could either of them have done to invoke such punishment? Chief Inspector Sejer believes that there must always be some kind of relationship, a reason, a motive to explain a crime, but in this case, it will be hard to find.

To explain it, Fossum adopts a most effective narrative strategy. We know from the beginning what the crime is and who the victims are. The perpetrator is a bit less certain, but obvious enough with time. So Fossum goes back, if not quite to the beginning, at least to the months before the crime and follows the two victims, Bonnie Hayden and her little boy Simon, on their daily rounds in the months leading up to their deaths. Bonnie is a home help, employed to aid the elderly or disabled around the house. We see her going about her tasks, made more difficult because she tends to get landed with the testier clients, those who look at her with narrowed eyes to be sure she does things correctly, clients whom other home helps have refused to work with. Bonnie's back hurts but she is patient, cheerful, and respectful of those she aids. They all love her, though several are too sour to admit it.

Bonnie is a single mother and her son Simon resents every moment that she can't spend with him. He is unreconciled to day care and fusses every morning. But he is a lovely little boy all the same and happy when he gets what few little presents Bonnie can afford to buy him.

Their life story is interleaved with an account of the police investigation that takes place after the murders and the contrast between these two innocents going forward with their lives with no consciousness that they will end brutally and soon and the painstaking police procedures is heart-breaking.

Also interleaved is the account of another single mother and her son. Maas Malthe is fifty-six and has just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. Her son Eddie lives with her and he is an odd one. He seems intelligent enough but is socially inept and unable to carry on a life beyond his home. Maas has been putting off telling him about her illness and her prospects but she is getting to the point where it can no longer be avoided. There is, moreover, a secret that she has been keeping from him that she must reveal before she dies.

HELLFIRE is an extraordinarily affecting book. Fossum is able to move the murder victims from the periphery to the centre of our concern, away from the criminal investigation. Finally, she is able to generate, if not sympathy, at least a comprehension of the motives impelling the murderer that is humanizing.

All that said, there is a plot twist that transforms the whole enterprise. In the end, this is one of the bleakest, most devastating crime novels I have read in the last few years, and one of the most affecting. It will be one of the most unforgettable as well.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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