“‘This is what I’ve always feared.'” – Black Seconds, by Karin Fossum

November 7, 2008 at 3:30 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

black 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!

Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum


  1. Kerrie said,

    When we discussed BLACK SECONDS in our face to face group last year, we, all female, felt great empathy with the theme. When our children were young the idea that they might vanish was an ever present threat. It was a great read.

  2. Kerrie said,

    I think the one I reviewed recently BROKEN is the next one. Not in the same vein at all really

  3. Roberta Rood said,


    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for your insightful review of BROKEN. I don’t think it’s been published in the U.S. at this time. After BLACK SECONDS, I’m most eager to read more books by Karin Fossum – a seriously gifted writer!

  4. Favorite crime fiction 2008: in a great year for the genre, these were the standouts « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] finally, it’s back to the Scandinavians with Black Seconds by Karin Fossum. I’ve already praised this powerful novel to the skies, but I’m happy […]

  5. Mysteries go global, part two: Scandinavia « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Edge, Karin Fossum’s latest Inspector Sejer novel, and enjoying it as much as I have the other entries in this fine series. Fossum’s writing is marked by an economy of expression and shrewd […]

  6. The Water’s Edge, by Karin Fossum (Mysteries go global, part four) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, books) In this novel, Karin Fossum has dared to portray not one but two child molesters as less than monstrous human […]

  7. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Coffin Trail – Martin Edwards The Indian Bride,  Black Seconds, and Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag […]

  8. Stieg Larsson « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Tucker omits my personal favorite, Norway’s extremely gifted Karin Fossum. And neither article mentions the team of writers whom many consider the founding parents of […]

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