In quick succession, we are introduced to three sets of people: Mass Malthe, whose grown son Eddie is dependent on her; Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her five-year-old son; and Inspector Konrad Sejer, his second-in-command Jakob Skarre, and Sejer’s dog Frank, a somewhat somnolent Shar-Pei. Frank is the sole source of comic relief in this relentlessly bleak saga. I wish we’d seen more of him.
Karin Fossum has chosen an unusual way to construct her story. From the outset, you know who the victims are – or were. Yet the reader spends a good part of the novel getting to know them while they are still vibrantly alive and utterly heedless of the future – or the lack of a future – that awaits them. The identity of the perpetrator is no great mystery, either. The puzzle concerns the why of it. (With its evocation of dread, and the reader’s desperate desire to somehow avert the looming catastrophe, this novel reminds me of Ruth Rendell’s chilling masterpiece, A Judgement in Stone, with its famous tell-all first sentence.)
Hell Fire is nominally a police procedural, and I would have welcomed more of a police presence in the novel. Instead, we get a great deal of detail concerning the lives of Malthe mother and son and Hayden mother and son. I’m not saying that this material is dull. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is especially true of Bonnie Hayden’s work as a cleaner and home health care aid for the elderly. Her experiences with these individuals are carefully and empathetically described.
I think Karin Fossum is a terrific writer. I consider myself an advocate and an admirer of her crime fiction oeuvre, of which I’ve read some nine or ten titles. But this was one tough read. Recommended, but consider yourself cautioned.