Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fossum "Black Seconds" Topolski "Monster Love"

Missing children

Mysteries and thrillers that involve children can be gripping – “Judas Child” by Carol O’Connell and “Even Steven” by John Gilstrap are two I particularly enjoyed.
It is so easy to empathize because the children are so lovable, so fragile and in the case of O’Connell’s heroine sometimes incredibly feisty and more intelligent than their elders. Their disappearances, and crimes against them, tear up communities in a way that no other event can.

I thought I would quite enjoy Karin Fossum’s “Black Seconds” and I did – this was also my introduction to the fashionable jet-set of Scandinavian crime and mystery writers. As much as this can be said about a book where a child goes missing and then is found dead (without giving too much of the plot away), “Black Seconds” almost reminded me of “cosy” mystery series – there was a definite snug feeling about this semi-rural/suburban Norwegian small-town. Fear grows as the days go by and little Ida is nowhere to be found. Could she be held prisoner in some basement, or halfway across the world kidnapped by a pedophile? But as Fossum keeps bringing our attention back to family and neighbors another, perhaps less cruel but nonetheless tragic scenario begins to emerge. Inspector Sejer is a very likeable character even if his perspective doesn’t dominate the narrative (Ida’s mother, Helga takes center stage). A middle-aged loner (it wasn’t absolutely clear to me, not having read the previous books on the series whether he is still married but estranged from his wife, separated or divorced) he owns a very old leonberger dog, for whom he is contemplating euthanasia and engages in the obligatory consumption of alcohol, required of male detectives everywhere.

The first pages where Helga slowly becomes aware that Ida is late and, as the hours pass, missing, are wonderfully written. Even though “Black Seconds” ending doesn’t include a plot twist – which in a way is oddly refreshing – and the reader will very likely see his/her suspicions confirmed in the final pages, Fossum’s description of the characters’ psyche is masterful – it reads as something utterly simple and obvious – something only writers with a unusual mixture of understanding and eloquence can pull off (Josephine Tey being the best example I can think of).
“Monster Love” is something altogether different - Carol Topolski’s first book doesn’t follow a typical mystery form, but then, going back to Tey, neither does “Miss Pym Disposes” or “Brat Farrar”, mysteries that concentrate on psychology rather than the mechanics of crime.

Topolski seems to attempt something in the manner of Sayers “The Documents In The Case” a book in which the narrative is conducted solely through letters, depositions, notes etc, arranged in chronological order.
Here we have a series of testemonials, from neighbours, parents, employers and, as the narrative proceeds, police officers, a judge, jury etc. The case: a young, upwardly mobile, very fashionable and very ambitious couple abuse their little daughter in an horrible manner. The first chapters are very tight, very well written and they really drew me into the story. Charlotte, the neighbor; Anthony the boss; Kaye the social worker and Alun the police office, have very singular and powerful voices. The next chapter is narrated by the couple, Sherilyn and Brendan, made me wonder – I thought my questions would be answered latter on, but they never were. Then begin chapters narrated by mothers, stepmothers and stepbrothers – that’s where the book lost its promise as far as I was concerned – briefly regained in the judge and jurors chapters.

The biggest problem is, to my mind, a poor psychological construction of the abusive parents. Brendan and Sherilyn decide they never want children – they become pregnant through a very forced failed vasectomy plus a history of irregular periods which never gave Sherilyn any cause to suspect that something was up for about four months (no morning sickness for her then). Since they were rich, I can’t understand why they didn’t just hire a full-time nanny. If, as Topolski argues, the only problem in their otherwise perfect relationship was the presence of the baby and they were criminally inclined, why didn’t they smother her in her first few days and attribute it to cot-death or some such thing? Why would they bear her for three whole years, go through the trouble of building her a complex cell complete with lavatory and wooden cage just so they could abandon her for days on end? Since no-one ever saw the child it would hardly matter if she was alive. And having gone through the whole thing why would they suddenly leave the country leaving the baby where she could easily be found, along with the proof of the abuse, which was so easily hidden?

There is so much that doesn’t square with the author’s own portrayal of her characters, that it becomes annoying. It reads as if Topolski never really got to the bottom of Sherilyn and Brendan, and therefore cannot present them clearly to the reader. She tries this and that reasoning on for size –even clearing Brendan of any pedophile traits the reader might foist on him, through the (again forced) appearance of child molester.

“Monster Love” straddles an impossible divide: if on the one hand the family chapters serve the idea that abused children become abusive parents, it also seems to imply that people do cruel things for no reason. In the end I ended up not buying either explanation.

1 comment:

jenclair said...

I read The Indian Bride by Fossum and enjoyed it, and I love O'Connell's Malory books!