I Can See in the Dark by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson
Originally published in 2010 as Jeg kan se i mørket.
English translation published in 2013.
Riktor doesn’t like the way the policeman storms into his home without even knocking. He doesn’t like the arrogant way he walks around the house, taking note of its contents. The policeman doesn’t bother to explain why he’s there, and Riktor is too afraid to ask. He knows he’s guilty of a terrible crime and he’s sure the policeman has found him out.
But when the policeman finally does confront him, Riktor freezes. The man is arresting him for something totally unexpected. Riktor doesn’t have a clear conscience, but the crime he’s being accused of is one he certainly didn’t commit. Can he clear his name without further incriminating himself?
I Can See in the Dark is not the sort of novel that is full of surprises. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it reflects a certain storytelling approach that suggests the grim inevitability of some outcomes so that when that moment comes it feels utterly appropriate.
The only real questions that the reader will have based on the blurb are who was his victim for the crime he did commit and who is he accused of murdering? Given that it is hard to outline the plot in any detail without spoiling those I will instead focus on describing our protagonist.
The novel is told from the perspective of Riktor, a rather bitter and lonely middle-aged individual who works in a nursing home. He is unmarried and has no children, often lamenting his lack of success at talking with people with repeated statements that he needs to find a wife. He hopes that he might form that sort of a connection with Sister Anna, a rather pious nurse who he suggests is the only person at his work who really cares, but seems unable to really talk with her.
Riktor’s own attitude towards his work is largely negative, finding the patients to be pitiful and repulsive. He finds huge amusement in carrying out little moments of cruelty towards his invalid patients including pinching or taunting them, sometimes switching their medications when he is alone with them in their rooms.
Much of his time away from work centers around a public park where he frequently encounters the same familiar faces. He despises most of them, assuming that they are probably being supported by the state and questioning why his taxes should go towards them and speculating about how pitiful their lives must be.
Riktor does not plan to become a murderer. Instead it happens in a moment of uncontrolled anger. He tries to cover up the crime and is terrified when the police show up to arrest him for murder but the terror turns to bafflement when he learns that the crime he is suspected of is one which he has nothing to do with.
Much of the remainder of the book deals with his preparations for trial. Will Riktor be able to present himself well in court and show that he was not involved? In addition there is the question of who is responsible for that murder if not him.
Let’s start with that last question first because I do not want to oversell that idea too much. There is a mystery here for the reader to consider but it sits largely in the background, more wondered about by Riktor than actually investigated. As such there is not a lot of evidence to go on and while I think there is at least a hint as to the killer’s identity, I don’t think it is particularly satisfying and it would not justify reading the book in itself.
Instead our focus is on exploring the character of Riktor and his reactions to the things he learns and his experiences of being in prison. We see how the environment changes him and how he adapts to it, even seeming to thrive there.
It is this section of the book that is the most intriguing because it is here that the reader will likely come closest to having some understanding of Riktor and the impulses that guide him. This is not because he is misunderstood or a victim himself – he repeatedly tells us that he does not have a tragic backstory that explains his problems – but because we see how much he values even the most superficial of connections.
It must be emphasized though that these moments of empathy are just that – moments. Riktor is a tragic figure but he has made conscious decisions to shift his pain and unhappiness onto others for years, tormenting the most vulnerable in society. This makes it quite unsettling and uncomfortable to spend a little over two hundred pages in his company.
There are several other characters in the novel but as the events are filtered through Riktor’s voice they often feel quite remote and distant. This is understandable given that he struggles to connect with others but it does mean that the reader never really connects with them either.
Ultimately the reader’s enjoyment of this book will largely center on how compelling they find him as a character and how much they can tolerate time spent inside his head. While there are some questions to solve, many of the solutions will be pretty apparent through the structure of the novel and I think readers keen on mystery elements will be disappointed.
Looking at it from the perspective of an inverted crime novel, I think it has some points of interest with regards the development of the character’s internal voice and the length feels appropriate. However, because the crime lacks any kind of planning and the cover-up feels so simple, Riktor isn’t much of a criminal mind. Instead we are simply spending time with a sadist and the result is a book that can make for pretty uncomfortable reading. In spite of those complaints however I found this to be a faster, more interesting and complete read than my previous experience of Fossum – The Murder of Harriet Krohn.
The Verdict: An uncomfortable read with a striking, if unpleasant, protagonist.