Black Seconds by Karin Fossum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had begun reading mysteries in about 1970, but it was only in 1998, when I began rating them for my own amusement (being a computational mathematician I love numbers). I did not rate all of the mysteries that I read, but I did most of them. A few days ago I looked my ratings up, and found out that among about 1300 mysteries I have rated there are just two that have received the highest rating of 9.5 out of 10, in my scale. One of them is Karin Fossum's novel "Black Seconds" (published in 2002 in Norway), and the other is "The Chill" (1964) by Ross Macdonald. I read "Black Seconds" for the first time in 2009, when it was published in the U.S. and then copied my enthusiastic review from Amazon.com to Goodreads. Being a skeptic, I believe that people are constantly wrong and that I am wrong more often than others, so I decided yesterday to read the novel again to check the extraordinarily high rating.
I stubbornly stand by my opinion; this is probably the best mystery book I have read in my life. Most of you who have read it will certainly disagree with me. Yes, it is pretty good, well written, with realistic characters, but best mystery ever? Come on, don't be silly. Well, I will try to justify my outrageous claim.
I have read nine books by Ms. Fossum. She is the absolute master of psychological observation. The mother's terror when her daughter does not come home at expected time is described with clinical accuracy. The overpowering fear, the senseless seeking for reasons for hope, the deal making with God, with fate. Ida, the girl who disappears, has always dreamed about a pet. Her birthday is coming, and the mother said "no". Now, she promises to buy all sorts of pets, when Ida comes back. Can you imagine the pain of an almost a 50-year-old, lonely woman, losing a beautiful, well-behaved 10-year old daughter who was the only thing for which her life was worth living? Now she is gone, forever. I believe most parents went through the hell of fear of losing a child when he or she is half an hour late. But in almost all cases the kids come back late.
The most beautiful, absolutely outstanding feature of Ms. Fossum's book is her compassion toward people. Weakness is the essence of the human nature; we are stupid, vain, self-centered, greedy for stuff and for power, insensitive to others' pain. Yet in "Black Seconds" the only person who is presented in negative light is not guilty of Ida's disappearance.
All characters in the novel are real people, they are not just the templates of the "murderers" and the "victims" or agents of the bad and the good as happens in most crime books. The only exception is, of course, Inspector Sejer. Police inspectors are human like all of us, meaning they exhibit all the negative traits of human nature. Mr. Sejer has too few of those, so maybe that is why I cannot assign the novel the rating of 10/10.
Furthermore, Ms. Fossum's novel, despite in fact being a police procedural, wonderfully slow, muted, and quiet one, is indeed a mystery. I mean we kind of know "who did it" from rather early in the text, and we are right. But not just quite right. I am unable to write any more on that topic, in order not to spoil the mystery. This "just not quite" is an extremely strong asset of "Black Seconds", if one reads mysteries for the "mystery". I do not care much about the "mystery factor", but here it is strongly present. And the method used by Inspector Sejer to finally understand what happened is refreshingly clever. Finally, don't miss the last paragraph of the novel!
---- The following is my review after 2009 reading ----
I have been reading mystery novels for over forty years, at a pace of about a hundred books a year. Karin Fossum's "Black Seconds" is her third book I read, and to me it is the best. I began with "When the Devil Holds the Candle" and I liked it. I loved "Don't Look Back", especially the masterful way the author teases the reader at the beginning, by way of a "false start". I found "Black Seconds" among the very best books I have ever read. Yes, it is a mystery, and it sort of keeps you guessing to the end, but that is not important at all. The psychological portraits of the characters are drawn so well that I felt I had known these people for years. The gentle "interrogations" towards the end of the book are reminiscent of Dostoyevski's "Crime and Punishment". There is not much action, but there is so much truth about people instead. Ms. Fossum writes extremely well, and the translator did a splendid job in managing not to spoil the dry, to-the-point style.
A piece of real literature.
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