“In every investigation, there was always a moment when a detective fervently wished that he could have met his victim when he or she was alive.”
Discovering a new crime fiction series presents a dilemma in the form of the number of new books that I may feel compelled to read, so I tend to approach a new series with some inherent skepticism along the lines of: “What separates this series from other books in the genre? This series has to be good enough, original enough to convince me that I want to commit to the lot.” Enter Carl MØrck and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen.
Detective Carl MØrck is recovering (and I’ll use that word loosely) from a horrendous shooting incident that left one partner dead and another paralysed. Although he suffered a head wound in the incident, nonetheless, he feels guilty that he didn’t react differently to the violent situation. He’s always been considered a problem by his fellow officers, and he’s certainly not the sort of person anyone would consider a “team player” (a horrible term in my book). With his partners dead or out-of-commission, Carl, depressed and feeling guilty that he survived, presents even more of a problem than usual. His ‘superiors’ would like to get rid of him, but under the circumstances they can’t, so instead, responding to political pressure regarding several cold crimes, Carl’s boss devises a solution to isolate Carl so that he does the least damage to the department and morale.
Called in to talk to his boss, Carl, who’s morose, depressed and suffering from “profound indifference,” is surprised to learn that he’s been given a promotion of sorts. He’s to be the head of Department Q–a department devoted solely to the solution of cold case crimes. Carl soon discovers that the reality is a converted basement office and a ‘department’ of one. Carl’s attitude towards his new assignment is basically to play cards and generally coast out the time until his retirement, but then he’s given an assistant, Assad, a curious character whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry. Assad is ostensibly employed to clean department Q and do the occasional odd-job, but his natural curiosity is contagious. Almost against his will, Carl becomes engaged in a cold case crime file.
Carl divides the stack of files that represent the cold crime cases into three piles, and then selects the case of the disappearance of an up and coming politician, Merete Lynggaard. Merete was an extremely attractive young woman whose bright political future was cut short when she disappeared without a trace while on a ferry years earlier. It’s assumed that she was a suicide, and the only possible witness to what happened is Uffe, Merete’s institutionalised, mentally damaged brother.
It doesn’t take long for Carl to uncover some suspicious circumstances in the case–after all Merete had many political enemies, but the fact that Merete maintained a heavily guarded private life doesn’t help Carl’s investigation a great deal. His methodical investigation, aided and abetted by Assad, slowly peels away layers of the past, and Carl becomes convinced that Merete was a victim of foul play.
It’s imperative that a series character is interesting. In Carl, author Jussi Adler-Olsen has created an original, intriguing and sympathetic character. Carl copes with the sort of personal problems many middle-aged men face: loneliness, an argumentative teen and an inability to approach women. Carl’s clumsy attempts to date a woman caused this reader to wince. Years spent at the mercy of his erratic wife, Vigga, have left Carl in a state of emotional limbo:
First his wife took off. Then she decided she didn’t want a divorce, but instead took up residence in the allotment garden. Next she went through a whole series of young lovers, and she had the bad habit of ringing Carl to tell him all about them. Then she refused to let her son live with her in the garden cottage any more, and in the throes of puberty the boy had moved back in with Carl.
Vigga is painted as annoying rather than evil. In a moment of stray generosity, we might call Vigga a “free spirit” but it would be more accurate to call her exploitative. She wants her freedom from the constraints of motherhood and marriage, but she expects Carl to fund her latest nonsense (an art gallery which features the ridiculous art she and her young lover create). Carl is unable to tell Vigga to take a hike, and so he responds to her demands and seems unable to resolve his ever-extending commitment to her. Obviously this is a subject that will raise its head in future novels, and it’s an interesting twist to the story. Also the relationship between Assad and Carl grows from annoyance to mutual respect. Carl begins to listen to Assad’s suggestions even as he understands the man’s limitations when it comes to questioning suspects. Although this is a crime novel, the plot includes its share of humour, and most of the humour is found in the unlikely relationship between these two men. Assad has a unique appreciation of a female office worker Carl can’t stand (he calls her Ilse the She-Wolf), and Assad causes departmental eyebrows to raise when he begins bringing fragrant baked goods and tea into the basement. Ultimately Carl and Assad work well as a team because they complement each other and they are both outcasts.
The novel is full with of carefully drawn characters and attention to detail. Here’s Carl returning from work:
When Carl got home, he leaned his bicycle against the shed outside the kitchen, noting that the other two occupants of the house were both there. As usual, his renter, Morten Holland, had turned the volume all the way up as he listened to opera in the basement, while his stepson’s downloaded shred metal was blasting out of a window upstairs. A less compatible collage of sounds couldn’t be found anywhere else on the planet.
Morbidly obese Morten, Carl’s renter, a 33-year-old video store clerk, is the “best housewife” Carl has ever known. Morten cooks and cleans for the all-male household:
He’d spent the last 13 of those years diligently studying all kinds of subjects other than the ones having any direct bearing on the three degree programmes in which he was officially enrolled. The result was an overwhelming knowledge about everything except the subjects for which he was receiving financial support and which in future would presumably earn him a living.
Morten is just one instance of author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s marvellous detailed characters:
An overgrown adolescent and androgynous virgin whose personal relationships consisted of remarks exchanged with random customers at the Kvickly supermarket about what they were buying. A little chat by the freezer section about whether spinach was best with or without cream sauce.
The disappearance of Merete is a page turner, and the result is a superior, tense crime novel. But much more than that, in The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen created a set of characters I want to return to. Soon.
Translated by Tina Nunnally
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.