Black Seconds (Inspector Sejer Mysteries)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
272 pp., $24.00
Reviewed by Joseph Bottum
There's something indelicate about delicacy. Pushed too hard, striven for too relentlessly, the obstinate attempt to express every shade of human motivation usually ends in a muddle—like an over–detailed pencil drawing, where the cross–hatching of the background obscures the subject of the foreground. Karin Fossum's latest novel, Black Seconds, is a failure. There's just no way around that fact. But it is, perhaps, an instructive failure, for it shows that talented writing, carefully observed characters, and psychological acuity are not enough to make a good mystery novel. You also need a story and a plot to express it. Karin Fossum is ten times the writer that, say, Agatha Christie was. And still, somehow, Christie's A.B.C. Murders is ten times the mystery novel that Fossum's Black Seconds is.
Not that Karin Fossum—a 54–year–old Norwegian author—hasn't received her share of acclaim. All her dustjackets reproduce the praise of the New York Times: "a superb writer of psychological suspense. She turns a conventional police procedural into a sensitive examination of troubled minds and a disturbing look at the way society views them." She's won the Gumshoe Award for the fourth novel in her series about Inspector Konrad Sejer, When the Devil Holds the Candle, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for her subsequent book, The Indian Bride.
In Norway, the Inspector Sejer series has reached eight volumes, and the sixth of them is the most recent to be translated into English. Black Seconds is presented as an all–too–typical story of a missing child—yet another entry in the endless flow of modern thrillers that seem to need the extra outrage of a little girl, murdered or abused, to gin up the moral fervor necessary to drive the book forward.
There's a long tradition of using children this way in mystery writing, of course, going all the way back to H.C. Bailey's accounts of the forensic pathologist Dr. Reginald Fortune in the 1920s, and Fossum's stories are, in many ways, reminiscent of Bailey's. There's the same emphasis on the sheer procedure of the investigation, for instance, and there's an odd darkness in them both: a sense that vulnerability defines the human situation and that underneath ordinary life a chasm waits.
Black Seconds, however, turns out to be less about children than about adults. As the story opens, a nine–year–old named Ida has just failed to return from her bicycle ride down to the center of town to buy a magazine. Everyone in the village of Glassverket is enchanted by the little girl, but especially her mother, Helga Joner, who has always had the anxiety–causing sense that Ida is "just too good to be true," indeed, "too good to last."
Meanwhile, there's Helga's sister, Ruth, a calmer and happier woman—yet she too has begun to worry, now that her teenage son Tomme, who has recently learned to drive, is hanging out with an anti–social older boy named Willy. As it happens, Willy's own mother is worried because he hasn't returned from a trip to Copenhagen, and around the streets of Glassverket there's yet another child who causes anxiety—or, rather, a near child: a hulking, 50–year–old mentally retarded man named Emil, who moves around on his three–wheeled cycle and only ever speaks the word "No."
Yes, well, into all this comes Konrad Sejer, the grim and yet surprisingly fragile inspector sent to solve the nine year–old's disappearance. And solve it he does, discovering along the way that Elsa Marie Mork, the bitter old mother of the retarded Emil, still cares deeply for her son, despite the stream of abuse she showers on him. Elsa cleans fanatically, for example, as a way of keeping her anxiety about Emil at bay, and though "her heart was encased in a hard shell," Fossum observes, "it still beat with compassion on the inside."
Sejer discovers, as well, the extent of his own anxiety for his seven–year–old grandson Matteus, a Somali boy adopted by Sejer's daughter Ingrid. And here's where the psychology of the psychological mystery novel starts to go off the rails. Fossum had a nice–enough tale of mothers going, but she tried to make it a story of the universal adult worry about children. To some extent, she had to, since Sejer's empathy is supposed to be what allows him to solve the mystery. But the sentimental anxiety of grandfathers is not the birth–pang anxiety of mothers. Fossum knows that. "Ida's disappearance was like a net and it drew them all in," she writes of the sisterhood of mothers in the village. She lets the insight slip away, however, for no other purpose than to solve her plot problem and to show her fragile detective in a good light.