Reviewed by Rima Walker
More and more, American and British crime novelists are being overshadowed by really fine Scandinavian writers—Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larson, to name a few (and there are many more). Many are Swedish and Norwegian, but now we have a crime novel written by a Dane who has won many of the same prestigious literary awards and whose first novel published in America will be followed by more in a series to which I am looking forward avidly.
Adler-Olsen’s protagonist is Carl Morck, a Copenhagen detective who had a brilliant career but who is undergoing post-traumatic stress syndrome and feelings of survivor’s guilt after being shot in an incident in which one of his men was killed and his friend, Detective Hardy, was paralyzed. Never popular with the homicide squad, he finds himself in an even worse situation, alienating everyone with arrogance, moodiness, uncooperative behavior, and in general being a royal pain. What saves him for me are his eccentricities and black humor which make him somewhat different from the Swedish and Norwegian cops—a refreshing change even though my heart belongs to Mankell’s Wallander.
The squad can’t stand him anymore; he slacks off, he’s apathetic, he’s interfering. His boss sees an opportunity to be rid of him without firing him by making him head of the one man Department Q with Morck being the investigator dealing only with cold cases. The boss also sees a chance to siphon off a great deal of the money funding this new department until Morck catches on and lets his boss know that he knows; thus he is able to get equipment and a car and an assistant, Assad, who starts out as a janitor but ends up practically a partner to the impossible-to-work-with, quirky Morck. Although Morck has no interest in anything but Sudoku puzzles, he is gradually brought back into work despite his chest pains and panic attacks by Assad and a kidnapping case involving a not very popular and personally very private politician, Merete Lynngard, who disappeared years before and was believed to have drowned during a ferry crossing. But she is not dead; she is imprisoned in a concrete room; she is barely fed unwholesome food once a day by unseen people, particularly a woman who tells her that every year on her birthday she will be asked why she is there, and that she will remain imprisoned and tortured until she can answer that question correctly. She remains there for years wanting the answer, just as the reader does: the suspense is overwhelming.
Adler-Olsen creates this nail-biting suspense by interspersing Merete’s and Morck’s points of view. As we follow the investigation, we are also following the horrors Merete has been subjected to for all these years. The two narratives come together when Morck and Assad find her place of imprisonment, but that doesn’t end the suspense which rapidly accumulates until the novel reaches a poignant ending.
Aside from the intriguing plot, what makes the novel work very well is the interplay between Morck and Assad which is sometimes serious and sometimes quite funny. A lot of the humor on Morck’s part comes from his sardonic wit but also from his relationship with his estranged wife, Vigga, from whom he is separated, who nevertheless comes to him for funding for her latest schemes—this time an art gallery in which to display the work of her lover. It also comes in a small bit from Vigga’s son, Jesper, who couldn’t stand to live with Vigga and departs from her only to live with and confound his step-father, Morck.
As for Assad, ostensibly a Syrian Muslim with political asylum, well, he is a dark horse. Always cheerful, smiling, and charming, he is something other than what he seems, for he clearly knows how to do more than push a broom, make tea and samosas, and to get people to do what he wants when Morck cannot. He gets Morck to work, he finds clues where sometimes Morck doesn’t see them, clues that lead finally to the location of the kidnappers and Merete, and he knows how to wield a knife. Yes, there is something about his past that he doesn’t reveal, and he easily sidesteps questions about it.
I like Morck and Assad, and I like the gripping trip they take together. Mostly I really want to know more about them and some of the other characters, minor though they may be. Certainly more will be revealed when the second book of the series is released in America. I hope it’s soon.~