Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Karin Fossum's "Black Seconds"

I'd really been looking forward to this new Karin Fossum novel, the fifth of her eight books to be translated into English from her native Norwegian, as the last one, Beloved Poona (disappointingly published in the UK as Don't Look Back and here as The Indian Bride) was as satisfying a literary portrait of a small town as I've ever seen, and reminded me at times of, yes, even Alice Munro. So it's a surprise to discover that this book (translated by Charlotte Barslund) is the most traditional police procedural Fossum has produced, residing for much of its length in the mind of its austere protagonist, Inspector Conrad Sejer.

Not that I have a problem with that. I am, after all, a crime buff, and Fossum is quite rightly known as a crime novelist. Still, she had been playing with the bounds of the genre, and it was faintly disappointing to see her pulling back.

That said, the book itself is not remotely disappointing--in fact it's really good. A girl goes missing, inexplicably, in broad daylight, and a week of searching turns up nothing. That's the setup. Unlike most crime novelists, Fossum doesn't play it as a whodunit--we very quickly meet three characters who are certainly involved in the girl's disappearance, and there is never any indication that this is some kind of feint on the author's part. And it isn't. Rather, the novel unfolds as a howdunit--we know more than Sejer, but as we get closer to the end, his knowledge catches up to ours, and we learn the key facts by his side. There are no nasty shocks, only the fascination of watching complex characters admit to themselves at last what they have done.

Fossum does something in her books that I absolutely despise in other writers--she allows us into the minds of the criminals, who just happen not to be thinking of the answer to the mystery when we stop by. This tactic can seem terribly manipulative and opportunistic, but for some reason it doesn't bother me with Fossum. In Beloved Poona this makes a certain kind of sense, as the guilty party is keeping the secret even from him/herself, in a psychologically plausible way. Here, though, the line is a little blurrier, and I felt a few times that she was cheating just a bit.

But perhaps that's merely a byproduct of my intimacy with the traditional police procedural, where the solution to the crime usually is the point, and the psychological depth of the characters of less importance. There, this move really is a cheat. Here, though, I was surprised to find myself happily going along for the ride. Particularly commendable in this book is the way Fossum brings to life one particular man, an introverted and possibly autistic eccentric in his fifties, whose sessions with Sejer are truly exciting and convincing.

So, not what I expected, but I'm very satisfied. Recommended.


bigscarygiraffe said...

Yes, I ripped off your blog. Yes, this is a shameless self-promotion. Thanks for the inspiration..no really.. thanks.


jrlennon said...

A+ for you young lady

Franz Neumann said...

On the vein of contemporary Norwegian authors, Lars Saabye Christensen's The Half Brother is a good read — a crime opens the book and continues to haunt all gazillion pages, though it's more a family story than a crime novel. It's a somber read, but with small shafts of humor plunging in from time to time. A bit like the sun in a Norwegian winter.

There's an English translation on Amazon, though I read it in the original Norwegian (slowly, very slowly, and with a Norwegian-English dictionary).