The Water's Edge, By Karin Fossum

Harvill Secker, £11.99
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The Independent Culture

Shortly before they come across the dead body of a half-naked small boy, Reinhardt and Kristine Ris, a couple in their thirties, see by the forest barrier a tall shifty man. Kristine does not like the look of him, but he reminds her of somebody. Later, in the police station, she realises: "Hans Christian Andersen." When the police inspector himself – Karin Fossum's grave, indomitable Sejer, accompanied by his dedicated sidekick, Skarre – catches up with this lone individual, he too is struck by the resemblance.

The real Andersen felt cut off from normal people by his gawky, anomalous, asexual appearance. Likewise the suspect here, whose mind we enter before we find out his identity. Like the famous Dane, he has had a wretched childhood. Now, to compensate, he turns to children for release. We know from the beginning of this taut, tense novel that he is responsible for the death of little Jonas, and that he sexually assaulted him, though there are truths we do not know, and which shock us. He has long liked to charm the young as he drives his white car around his rural neighbourhood. The malign spell under which Huseby – in south-eastern Norway – lives is of his making. This intensifies when Jonas's schoolmate, grossly overweight Edwin, disappears.

As a portrait of a community possessed by suspicion, The Water's Edge can scarcely be bettered. Their finding of the dead boy has a deleterious effect on the childless, non-communicative marriage of Reinhardt and Kristine. Then there is the shift in attitude towards the hitherto popular schoolmaster, Alex Meyer, extroverted half of a steady gay partnership. Equally incisive is Fossum's delineation of fat Edwin's mother after he has gone missing.

But the treatment of the paedophile himself is less satisfactory. Sejer and Skarre's discussions seem platitudinous, while the criminal thinks somewhat too articulately about his condition. Nothing in Fossum's presentation inclined me to any charitable attitude towards this perpetrator of a cruel deed. But maybe that was not her intention.