One afternoon in the small Norwegian town of Glassverket, nine-year-old Ida Joner rides off on her yellow bicycle to the local newsstand, where she always buys her favorite magazine and some treats. Not an extraordinary errand. But what is extraordinary is that Ida fails to return home.
Her mother Helga is rapidly consumed with anxiety. Theirs is a small household: just herself and Ida. Since separating from her husband Anders, Helga has allowed her life to revolve around her daughter. And now the thing she has always feared the most has come to pass:
Why did this feel so familiar? Because she had already, for many years now, been rehearsing this moment in her mind. Because she had always known that this beautiful child was not hers to keep. It was the very realization that she had known this day would come that terrified her. The knowledge that she could predict the future and that she had known this would happen right from the beginning made her head spin. That’s why I’m always so scared, Helga thought. I’ve been terrified every day for ten years, and for good reason. Now it’s finally happened. My worst nightmare. Huge, black, and tearing my heart to pieces.
When Inspector Konrad Sejer does his best to soothe her, she blurts out, “‘This is what having children is like!'” There is something elemental in this cry of pain than any parent will recognize.
Helga’s sister Ruth lives nearby and does what she can to provide aid and comfort. She is a loving aunt to Ida and is thus also suffering on Helga’s behalf. But Ruth has a family of her own and is as yet unaware that her own nightmare awaits her just down the road…
Although I’ve read all five novels in this series, I haven’t read one in a while, and I didn’t recall a particular impression of Inspector Sejer. In Black Seconds, he possesses a rare quality of receptive stillness. In his interviews with both victims and potential suspects, he demonstrates empathy and compassion. Konrad Sejer is a tall, saturnine man who has known his own share of grief. He lost his beloved wife Elise some years prior and still misses her. And the dog whose loving faithfulness has helped to fill the void in his life is now aged and facing the inevitable.
Ah well. In my review of The Demon of Dakar, I quote Jake Kerridge, a writer for The Telegraph, to the effect that ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” And yes, the mood here is almost unrelievedly bleak.
Still, it’s hard to know what to praise first in this novel: the smartness of the plotting, the vividness of the characters, the overarching atmosphere suffused with tension and dread. And the writing is quite simply superb.
I want to make a more specific observation about the plot. I recently read two mysteries in which the plot was convoluted that I had trouble following it, and trouble caring that I wasn’t following it. Moreover, a great deal of exposition and explanation was crowded in at the end of the book. Black Seconds, by comparison, is propelled forward by a simple, direct story line. It’s the characters themselves who furnish the complexity. I couldn’t put it down.
As I said earlier, I’ve read all the previous books in this series. I liked them all, but with Black Seconds, Karin Fossum is writing at the height of her considerable powers. It will be most interesting to see what comes next!