Written by Karin Fossum, translated by Kari Dickson — In Norway, Karin Fossum is regarded as the queen of crime fiction and with The Drowned Boy she proves just what a powerful writer she is. This is the 11th outing for Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, and we find the detective feeling dizzy. Literally. He’s been having spells of faintness and is worried about his health. Then a call comes in. He’s needed at the scene of a tragic accident.
Tommy Brandt’s body has been found by his mother in a pond near their home. Kneeling down next to the 16-month-old’s naked corpse, Sejer and his colleague Skarre notice that the little fellow is a bit different. He has Down’s Syndrome, and Sejer is immediately moved by the infant’s death. According to Carmen Zita, the boy’s mother, Tommy was playing on his blanket while she prepared salmon for dinner. She went into the bathroom to do some washing and when she came back he was gone. The door was open due to the summer heat and the boy walked out of the house, across the grass and onto a small jette before falling into the pond.
Nicolai, the father, was fixing a bike in the basement and came running but couldn’t revive Tommy. The paramedics came and tried in vain to save him. Carmen is in tears, but Sejer gets the impression that she’s crying about what’s happening to her rather than what’s happened to her son. He feels sorry for her but has a nagging doubt about her story, and her attitude.
As the story goes on, Fossum uses the characters and situation to explore the issues of disability, Down’s Syndrome, abortion and even faith. Tommy’s father Nicolai is distraught. He truly loved the boy and cannot cope as Carmen tries to bully him into getting over it and moving on. Carmen professes her love for Tommy, but frequently caveats that with his imperfections. All too soon she wants them to get a dog and have another child. Her father Marian Zita, a hardworking immigrant to Norway who has turned a fast-food restaurant into a profitable business, backs his daughter and finds any excuse he can to explain her behaviour. But when he sees Tommy’s cot dismantled in the basement just weeks after the tragedy, even he has his doubts.
Maybe this is just her way of coping – moving on and shutting Tommy’s death out. After all, she’s young, vibrant and beautiful and has her whole life ahead of her. But Sejer circles like the velvet vulture that he is, gently and politely questioning Carmen, her family and associates, comparing stories and gauging attitudes. Forensic evidence proves Carmen’s original story to be false but she comes up with another version of events that Sejer will have a hard time to disprove. While he pities Tommy’s parents, Sejer becomes convinced that he’s the dead child’s only voice; his only hope of justice. Trouble is, only Carmen knows what really happened and she might be telling the truth.
Sejer discusses the frequent abortion of Down’s Syndrome foetuses with his Christian colleague Skarre. They both admit, ashamed, that they would probably abort a Down’s baby. Several negative things about children with the condition are expressed, mainly through Carmen Zita. They can be slow to develop, they have learning difficulties, and she says Tommy was very difficult. Nikolai sees his baby just like a normal child. A midwife Sejer talks to explains many of the positive things about people with Down’s Syndrome – their typically good nature, honesty and innate wisdom. I really appreciate the balanced and compassion with which Fossum presents things, having a boy with Down’s Syndrome myself.
Throughout the book, Sejer tries to find out whether Tommy’s death was an accident, or if something more sinister went on that hot summers day. The focus becomes a court date when Carmen Zita’s fate will be decided. Sejer knows that without hard evidence the question of what happened to Tommy may hang over the town forever. Was she negligent? Did she murder him? Or is she to be cleared?
Harrowing and emotional, The Drowned Boy is an excellent book that will stay with you for a very long time. It concludes with a twist of fate that is as bizarre as it is delightful. Ambiguous and bemusing, it’s almost like something out of the TV series Fargo. And yet it is so strangely satisfying. There might be hope for little Tommy Brandt’s legacy after all, and just the possibility of that had me punching the air.
The Drowned Boy is released 4 June. Read more about the intriguing Inspector Sejer in our complete guide here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
The Drowned Boy was so poorly written that I wonder if it were an earlier, failed effort by Fossum that was published anyway to meet some contract obligation. The translation was part of the problem- it made me question if the translator was even fluent in English. The writing was repetitive and clunky; it could easily have been edited into a novella or even a short story. This Fossum was so inferior to her other work that it shocked me. Very disappointing.
Even if you didn’t like the book this comment is very harsh. I found the writing quite intricate, the translation seemed fine to me, and if there was repetition, it seems to me that’s because the characters go over the occurrences in their heads again and again. This is a big part of the psychology of crime and guilt, which is what Karen Fossum explores in many of her novels.