The Caveman by Jørn Lier Horst

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Jorn Lier Horst The Caveman 200

Translated by Anne Bruce — It’s Christmas time and the Norwegian coastal town of Larvik is covered in a blanket of snow. A few doors down from where Chief Inspector William Wisting lives, Viggo Hansen is found dead in his home. He’s been there for four months without anybody noticing. His mummified body, in its dry, insulated setting, is found seated in the front of a television, still on when the police break in.

Wisting’s journalist daughter, Line, remembers the introverted Hansen and his fate makes a strong impression on her. She decides to write a human interest story about how people with no friends or family can be wholly forgotten and uncared for.

To better understand her subject, she requests access to his house, where there are still traces of the man’s dismal end – the chair he was found in, and even his TV guide lying there, still marked up. Although the death is declared unsuspicious, something tells her Hansen may have had a visitor before he died.

As Line canvasses the outlying neighbourhood in order to form a picture of Hansen’s life, she decides not to bother her father with vague speculations just yet. Which is a good thing because another body is found on a local Christmas tree farm. Similarly, it has lain a few months before being noticed. With no identification, it is slow going for Wisting and his investigative team until they find fingerprints on a brochure carefully tucked into a protective plastic sleeve in the dead man’s pocket. When the police database finds a match on the print, the news floors even the cool-headed Wisting. It belongs to Robert Godwin, a notorious American serial killer who has been on the FBI’s most wanted list since he eluded the authorities 20 years ago.

Wisting and his colleagues struggle to keep the case quiet before the press sniffs it out, but they are forced to involve the Americans and even the Swedes, who also have recent unsolved cases of involving missing young, blonde women – Godwin’s favourite type of victim. The chief question is whether the body they have is Godwin himself or one of his victims. Things get interesting when they discover a women’s blonde hair in the corpse’s clenched hand. The body turns out to be an American named Robert Crabbe who taught in the same university as Godwin. Crabbe was in Norway purportedly researching his ancestry, but perhaps he was on Godwin’s trail.

If there is an American serial killer on the loose living as a Norwegian, he might be hiding out as a ‘caveman’, using another person’s identity. When Wisting and his transnational colleagues dig deeper into murders and disappearances in Norway and Sweden, they realise Godwin’s killing spree certainly did not end 20 years ago. The race is on to discover which identity the caveman has been hiding behind, and to cut off his escape.

Upon every dramatic reveal, Horst shifts back and forth between the perspectives of the well-drawn characters Wisting and his daughter Line. Their investigations slowly converge, and when they do meet the ensuing suspense is relentless. Wisting realises too late that his daughter’s probings coincide with the killer’s trajectory, and the calm demeanour he hides behind only underlines the gravity of events. Likewise, the restrained tone of Horst’s writing lends power to the thrills. When the investigators finally cross paths with Godwin, it is most effective drama. However, the big moment comes in the book’s 11th eleventh hour, so the ending feels abrupt. The mystique of Godwin is a double-edged. When we finally glimpse him, he remains unfathomable, and the lack of face-time with the antagonist is frustrating.

The Caveman will delight fans of suspense and procedural realism, but these aren’t cheap thrills. Jorn Lier Horst’s career as a detective informs this novel. Wisting and his fellow investigators, as well as the crime scene examiner and the prosecutor on the team, are all credible characters. The rugged setting of Horst’s native Larvik enhances the storyline, but also serves as a substrate for Wisting’s and Line’s existential reflections, as they ponder the snowfall and their own loneliness and mortality.

Read our review of the previous book in the series, The Hunting Dogs, here. The Caveman is released 19 February.

Sandstone Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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