Friday, January 24, 2014

Black Seconds, by Karin Fossum

Middle-aged Norwegian divorcee Helga Joner frequently looks at her daughter, Ida, nearly ten years old and exquisite, and thinks the child is too perfect to last long in the world. And one day, fulfilling her mother's darkest fear, Ida climbs onto her yellow bicycle, pedals off toward the kiosk in the town for some sweets and never returns.

Enter Inspector Konrad Sejer and his partner, Detective Jakob Skarre. They do their best to calm the frantic mother, to interview the neighbours and relatives and to organise an effective search involving hundreds of people with their own agendas -- to find Ida alive and well, to find her grisly remains, or just to go out and participate in the community effort.

I love Fossum's crime fiction for what it lacks:  hair-raising suspense, gruesome violence, maniacal killers, or a particularly brilliant detective. Konrad Sejer is a competent, kind and dignified policeman. The killer is invariably someone in the neighbourhood who fell into an unfortunately set of circumstances; the killing is rarely premeditated and indeed often quite inadvertent. We can distance ourselves from the raving psychopaths in much American fiction, but it's nearly impossible to read Karin Fossum's books without thinking, "Wow, that could be me." The victim, the killer, the witnesses -- they're all perfectly ordinary people.

Late on the night of the child's disappearance, Helga's sister, Ruth, hears her son come home and slam the door to his room. After telling Tomme that his cousin Ida has disappeared, she can see that he's upset about something else, as well.  He tells her that he's had an accident with his Opel, his first car and his pride and joy. He hit a bridge abutment and dented the front fender. She can't tell which pains him more -- the news of Ida or the damage to the car.

Tomme declines to join the search for Ida, claiming he finds it too distressing. He spends his time instead at the garage of his friend Willy, who has the skill to repair the Opel but also a criminal record. Ruth pleads with her son to avoid Willy's company, but he's desperate to have his beloved car made right. Is Tomme just being a typical teen-ager, Ruth wonders? Is he more upset about Ida than he lets on, or is something nefarious going on with Willy? Why do both Sejer and Skarre seem interested in speaking with Tomme, and why does he seem to have no inclination to communicate with anyone? The reader is naturally suspicious of Tomme's behaviour, but Fossum knows that his mother can't face up to it.  Mothers are conditioned to look for the best in their offspring.
His voice sounded mechanical, like he was delivering a rehearsed speech. She had never questioned Tomme's honesty. She took it completely for granted. She thought the same of her daughter, Marion, and her husband, Sverre. That they always told the truth. Yet she felt uneasy whenever she thought of her son and the way he was acting. Something kept on nagging her. She had a strong feeling that he was struggling with something. A deep-seated instinct was telling her that he was lying. It's just because I'm tired, she thought, I'm not thinking straight. It's a vicious circle. From now on I have to trust that he's telling me the truth. From now on, she thought.
Elsewhere in the town, another mother is struggling with her son, who is even more uncommunicative than Tomme.  Elsa Marie Mork is getting older, and her middle-aged son, Emil Johannes, is all but mute -- his only word is "no". She looks after him and cleans his house as best she can. He motors about the town on his 3-wheeled motorcycle, doing odd jobs.

When Ida's body finally appears at a roadside, carefully wrapped in a comforter and wearing an imported white muslin nightgown, Sejer is utterly confounded. The pathologist determines that a blow to her chest killed the girl, but there is no other injury or sign of sexual abuse. Sejer pursues clues from the nightgown, delightfully out of his element in the town's three lingerie shops. This train of research leads him to Elsa and Emil Mork, and this time, the dynamics are reversed:  Elsa wants to say as little as she can manage, and Emil for once wishes that he could communicate. He rides his three-wheeler up the road by the waterfall and tries to speak into it, knowing that the crashing water will drown out his attempts.
He pursed his lips and tried a word. He wanted to say "impossible". He forced air from his diaphragm out through his mouth. He remembered that sound was formed by the tongue and the lips. Faintly he heard something resembling a grunt. He tried again, opened his mouth wide and listened intently through the roar of the waterfall. A long, coarse sound emerged from his throat. He became annoyed and tried once more. His voice was so gruff; he did not understand why. "No" was easy. "No" lay at the roof of his mouth, ready to be spat out like a cherry stone. How about "yes"? Could he say that? However, he did not like that word as much, it felt like surrendering to something and he did not want to do that. How would he ever manage to form long words? Such as the difficult word "misunderstanding"? It was quite impossible. He gave up and felt sad. His face was wet. Then he remembered "s". This was a sound he could form at the front of his mouth; no tone, just a hiss, like that of a snake. He could manage that! This cheered him up. Quit while you're ahead, Emil Johannes thought.
Elsa, in the police station for questioning, also puzzles Sejer. Although she's far from informative -- now it's her turn to hand him one "no" after the next -- Sejer treats her with unfailing consideration and dignity.
What was going on inside her head? He thought she was mainly concerned about Emil. Even though he did not know her, he did not underestimate how strong and determined she might be. She had lived her whole life with a son who was different. A son she had cleaned up after, washed for and taken care of for more than fifty years. How well did she know him? How disabled was he? Had it been his own choice to withdraw from all contact? People did, sometimes for good reasons. What kind of life had they lived? Perhaps she had no life of her own because she had never wanted or been able to have one? She got involved with the lives of others instead and cleaned up after them. He thought of her with humility as he walked down the corridor. She was a person who had never previously broken the law. At the same time he was thinking of Ida. 
She was sitting with both hands in her lap. It would be wrong to describe Elsa Mork as a beautiful woman. But everybody has got something, Sejer thought. Now he noticed her posture. Her back was effortlessly straight. There was fighting spirit in her strong face. Her hands, hidden under the table, were red and dry from cleaning. He remembered this from their first meeting. She was wearing a thin jumper with a round neck and a straight skirt with no pleats. It reached halfway down her calves. She wore low-heeled, sensible shoes with laces. No perm in her hair, which was short and the colour of steel, not unlike Sejer's own. He greeted her kindly and pulled out a chair. She nodded briefly, but did not smile. Her face was expectant. Beneath that calm exterior she had to be under great stress, Sejer thought, but she was hiding it well. This might mean that she was used to hiding things, used to keeping up appearances, like the one he was observing now. But this is about a dead child, he thought. An adorable child with brown eyes, who looked like Mary Pickford. Elsa Mork had a child of her own. It had to be possible to reach her. He poured himself a glass of Farris mineral water. The fizz from the water was the only sound in the quiet room. It seemed very loud. Elsa waited.
Sejer drank from his glass. "The air in here is dry," he stated. "I'm just telling you. It helps having something to drink, should you begin to feel tired." He indicated the bottle next to her seat. She did not reply. He was friendly, but she was on her guard. She was used to it, she was always on her guard. "Do you understand why you're here?" he began. Elsa had to think about that. Of course she did. However, it was important to articulate this in the best possible way.
"I think so," she said stiffly. "Emil and I have both been brought here in connection with that case. The girl you found by the road."
"Correct," he said, watching her. Her gaze was steady for the time being. "Do you recall her name from the papers?" he said.
She was reluctant to say the name out loud, but it came anyway. "Ida Joner," she said in a subdued voice.
"Have you ever met Ida Joner?" Sejer asked.
"No." The answer came quickly. It might also be partly true. Perhaps she had only seen her once she was dead.
"Do you know if your son ever met Ida Joner?" Again this no, again the same firmness.
"He owns his own house?" Sejer said.
"No, it's a council house," she interjected.
While other fictional detectives might use brilliant interrogation techniques or simple bullying to extract confessions from suspects, Konrad Sejer quietly invites them to offer him the information without either of them losing face in the process.
"Please tell me if there's anything you need." Sejer said it with such kindness that she felt it like a caress. She looked at him blankly.
Her face opened up for a moment, then it closed suspiciously. "I don't need anything," she said. "I can manage on my own. I always have done." Sejer knew it. He could attack now, suddenly and unexpectedly, just to watch her stumble for a moment. He did not do so. It had to be possible to defeat her in such a way that she kept her dignity. He shrank from pressurising her, shrank from luring her into a wilderness. He would take no pleasure from seeing her shame when he caught her contradicting herself. Most of all he wanted to reach the point where she would tell him everything. Where she would finally unburden herself and confess.
Sejer, like his creator, Ms. Fossum, just wants to know why people act as they do. He's not convinced that all perpetrators have evil intent, and, eventually sensing that Sejer is not their opponent, people tend to relent and discuss with him what happened.
If all he was required to do was arrest people and help them make a confession, the job would be pointless as far as he was concerned. Ideally he wanted to know precisely what led to the deed; he wanted to walk in another person's footsteps and see it from their point of view. If he was able to do that, he could put the case behind him. Admittedly, there were cases where he never reached such an understanding, and they continued to haunt him. But they were rare. Most of the time a crime could be understood.
Sejer does, however, have a flash of brilliance when he walks past a box of Playmobil toys in the police station. He takes a handful of the plastic objects -- a car, a bicycle, a few human figures -- and invites Emil to show him what happened to Ida. Emil Johannes uses these items to illustrate the scenario with an eloquence that needs no words. In the end, there is no murderer. There were multiple people involved in one way or another with Ida's death, and none acted correctly, but none acted with malice, either. The case is solved, but it's not tidy, because human behaviour and emotion are not tidy, and walking in Karin Fossum's characters' footsteps is a disconcerting experience, because the shoes could so easily be our own.


  1. I want to read this so I didn't read your post :-)

  2. What?!? No typical American gruesome twist in the plot? The killer isn't the detective/ mechanic / cousin / baker / postman / neighbour's cat? For shame!


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