Karin Fossum: Black Seconds


The blurb of Karin Fossum’s ‘Black Seconds’ said that it was about a missing 10 yr old girl and I thought it would follow the contours of the standard mystery novels and delve into the world of child abuse. Surprisingly, Fossum’s tale did not take that route but instead took a very satisfying detour.

 The story starts, as the blurb told me, with the mother of to-be-10yr-old-in10days, Ida, waving her goodbye as she cycles to center of town to buy some sweets for herself. The evening turns into night but she doesn’t return. Her mother tries calling up her friends but Ida has not been to any of these friend’s places. She then calls her sister for help. They both go driving together to see if Ida is playing somewhere and has forgotten what time it was. It turns out to be a futile search and they finally call the police. That is when Inspector Sejer comes to their home and takes charge of the investigation.

 Police have no clue whatsoever. No one has seen the child during that time. The whole town assists the police in searching for Ida but there is still no trace of her. Her body is found after a few days lying near a main road. Inspector Sejer slowly pieces the details together to arrive at what exactly happened and apprehends the killer.

 To a large extent the brief outline I have given is misleading since the story does not proceed in such a fashion. Rather the telling of the story is a bit strange as the focus keeps shifting throughout. Initially Ida’s mother is the focus of the story. Slowly the focus shifts to her sister and family and later to the man who cannot speak, Emil. All the while the police procedural happens in the background and is not the one emphasized. It is only towards the end that the police come into their own and do a great job of clearing up the mystery. Till that time the focus is on three families. How all the lives of these three families intersect forms the core of the novel.

 Karin Fossum is as much interested in the psychology of various characters as she is interested in the crime. She balances these two aspects expertly, not allowing one to overwhelm the other and in the process keeping the reader’s attention intact. The characters she draws up are very real and interesting. Emil and his mother are very interesting and believable characters.

 This novel benefits from Fossum’s gripping way of describing incidents like the scene involving Tomme and Willie on the boat  The questioning of Emil’s mother has an almost Simenon touch to it and Sejer’s interaction with Emil to get to the truth is a very well realized scene.

 On the surface, while the novel reads as a thriller, deep down it is a novel about mothers. Helga, Ruth and Elsa are the three mothers whose story is told in these pages. The concern of mothers for their children in this modern age is the keynote of the novel. One mother fears for her young daughter and teaches her how she should behave with strangers, what to do and what not to do. She knows that there are times when her child should be out on her own and she tries her best to ensure the child is prepared to face the world. The other mother is concerned about her 18 year old son, who is becoming more and more independent. Her concern is that this independence should not lead him into a wrong path. She worries about his friends and does not want her son to be influenced by ‘bad’ friends. The third mother is burdened with a son, who finds it difficult to speak and does not interact with society. Though she is old, she does everything possible to help him and keep him protected.

 The novel could have easily become a dark one. Yet, Karin Fossum draws up her characters with great tenderness that the novel instead becomes an uplifting one.  Do be warned that this novel is not about the crime and you may infact guess most of it before the final dénouement. Solving the crime is secondary to the novel’s cause. The effect of the crime on people is the primary concern.

 Karin Fossum style, to me, is like a mix of the Scandinavian police procedural and the psychological novels of Simenon. This mix gives a unique voice to Karin Fossum. ‘Black Seconds’ is a great addition to the mystery genre and Scandinavian crime writing. 

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