Return of the Scandinavian sleuth
The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q)
by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Translation by Lisa Hartford
Plume, reprint edition 416 pages
“Just because somebody is a shit, it doesn’t mean he has no integrity. Like yourself, for example.”
Carl Morck’s had it tough. Smart-alecky responses from a guy he’s questioning are nothing. Weeks earlier he and two fellow Copenhagen police detectives were ambushed as they investigated a crime scene. One of his team was killed, the other, Hardy Henningsen, paralyzed. Morck’s physical wound was superficial.
The experience does nothing to soften the generally acerbic detective and his superiors decide that for the good of the force, Morck will be assigned to the basement, in charge of cold cases.
He actually liked the man, [thinks Morck’s boss] but those eternally skeptical eyes and caustic remarks could piss anyone off…
Prior to the shooting, Morck’s wife, Vigga, left him for a succession of young artists, and Vigga’s son Jesper, who loves heavy metal at high volume, decided to stay with Morck. When Morck visits his buddy Hardy in the hospital, his friend, paralyzed from the neck down, asks Morck to kill him. No wonder Morck would be happy sitting in the police department basement doing nothing.
The new cold-case squad, Department Q, consists only of the battered and blue but likable–in an arm’s length sort of way–detective and his assistant Hafez el-Assad, an enigmatic Syrian refugee. Morck initially limits Assad’s duties to driving him around, mopping the basement floors and generally staying out of his way.
But when Morck’s boss wants to see what case he will be working on first, Assad suggests a five-year-old missing persons case. Morck likes it, in part because one of his rivals in the department had failed to solve it. Soon Morck and Assad are absorbed in the case of a popular, beautiful politician who disappeared. You will be absorbed too.
The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen is another in the line of what one reviewer calls “Scandinavian sadism.” Readers all over the world were hooked on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book series by Stieg Larsson, the Swedish writer who died unexpectedly at age 50. The popularity of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo has increased since the publication of the Larsson novels. Adler-Olsen shouldn’t be far behind. His American publisher even adopted a book cover for him similar in font and layout to the Larsson books.
Adler-Olsen’s story is told in chapters that, for part of the book, jump back and forth between detective work by Morck and Assad and the earlier life of the missing person, Merete Lynggaard. Sadism is an appropriate description of the treatment Lynggaard receives, but it’s as unique a form of torture as that rendered on, and ultimately by, Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Lynggaard’s strikingly bizarre fate is revealed early in the book, but what keeps the plot lively and surprising is the search for the motivation, the means and the culprit or culprits, not to mention an ingenious plot twist that will not be mentioned here.
Selection of a Muslim sidekick for Morck is curious. It was a newspaper cartoonist in Denmark who ignited a firestorm of violent protests in the Middle East and elsewhere in 2005 by drawing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Adler-Olsen doesn’t mention or allude to the controversy and although he has Morck criticize Assad from time to time, the comments are not as derisive as those he uses on other police employees, and none are directly related to Assad’s faith.
For much of the book, Assad, who is not a policeman but simply a civil employee, is treated as a driver and gofer, yet his take on human nature and his powers of observation become useful to Morck. Assad’s not-quite-perfect mastery of Danish gives him a unique voice and makes for some amusing misunderstandings between him and Morck.
Morck’s relationship with his wife, stepson and with Hardy are not resolved, neither is the reason for the ambush at the beginning of the book. None of these things are essential to the Lynggaard case and await further exposition in following novels in the series.
The book has an entertaining and believable relationship between the two protagonists, a complex plot and a fast, breathless conclusion. Assad and Morck, with his many burdens, will be back.