“There are people in the world who deserved not to breathe. People who strove only toward their own selfish goals and never looked back at the destruction they left in their wake. A few came to mind. The question was what price should they be made to pay in consequence?”
The Purity of Vengeance is the fourth Department Q novel in the very popular Danish crime series by Jussi Adler-Olsen. I read the first, The Keeper of Lost Causes, and liked it so much I committed to the rest of the series. But numbers 2 and 3, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith escaped me, so a little chagrined, I turned to the fourth novel in the series, hoping that I hadn’t missed too much….
For anyone new to the series, the lead character is Detective Carl Mørck, once the department’s best homicide detective, but now a pariah thanks to an incident that left one detective dead and another paralyzed. Haunted by guilt, Mørck blames himself for what happened as he failed to draw his weapon in those crucial seconds. Considered bad for the department’s morale, he didn’t seem to be good for much, and so he was assigned to the newly created cold case department, Department Q. This may sound fancy, but in reality he was relegated to the basement and given a pittance for a budget. My interest in the series was captured by Mørck’s situation. I’d love to work on cold cases, alone in a basement, far, to quote that famous author, from the madding crowd. Will Mørck sink to everyone’s lowest expectations or will he adapt and accept the challenge?
To everyone’s surprise, it hasn’t been so easy get rid of Mørck. Initially his attitude was to drift towards retirement, but he’s become engaged in the solution of cold crimes. He’s solved some long forgotten cases, has managed to gain some respect, and he’s even hobbled together a couple of weird sidekicks. There’s Assad, whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry. Even though this is book 4, Mørck is really no closer to uncovering Assad’s secret past, but there are a couple of events that draw Mørck deeper into the mystery of Assad’s origins. There’s also prickly policewoman Rose in our trio of investigators.
In The Purity of Vengeance, Rose brings Mørck’s attention to the disappearance of a Madam, Rita Nielsen who disappeared into “thin air” in Copenhagen in 1987. The initial investigation yielded no clues whatsoever, and while Mørck isn’t interested at first, Rose’s persistence triggers his instinct for detection, and so the case begins. A survey of all those missing in that year uncovers an interesting trend–several of those missing appear to be linked by the infamous camp at Sprogø–not exactly one of the finer moments in Danish history–this was a camp ostensibly to ‘reform’ girls and women of their so-called socially deviant behaviour, but a large number of those women were sterilized against their will.
The story goes back and forth in time with Mørck in the present trying to track down leads on Rita Nielsen. We are also taken back to the 1950s and events that ruined the life of Nete Hermansen, but we also see her in the 1980s, living with the ruins of her life and the consequences of what others have done to her.
The book includes several sub-plots–vital clues emerge in the case which left one of Mørck’s partners dead and the other paralyzed, and Mørck’s crude, big-mouth cousin is implicating Mørck in the death of his uncle. Then there’s Mørck trying to pursue a relationship with psychologist Mona even as his long-estranged wife announces her imminent re-marriage and tries to wrangle a great deal of money from her soon-to-be-ex. And we also see Doctor Curt Wad behind The Purity Party in 2010 as it prepares to enter a role in Danish government. According to the party’s critics, Denmark will see a repellent political agenda which includes “moral norms, ideas, and ideologies that lead the mind back to an age most of us would be loath to return to. To political regimes that deliberately persecute minorities and society’s weak: the mentally handicapped, ethnic minorities, the socially disenfranchised.”
The book’s main interest comes in this glimpse into Denmark’s past as once again, we see a society reel in, harness and brand women–mostly for what was termed as being “feeble-minded.” One of the subtleties of the book is the way in which Curt Wad tenderly nurses his wife to the end, preserving her life when others may have deemed the quality of her life long gone, so we see a man who sits in judgment of those he classifies as inferior–life terminated for some and extended for others. The book throws this idea out there but doesn’t overwork the comparison between Wad’s crusade for the so-called purity of Danish society and his private life. Another subtle idea in the novel is the ‘purity’ of revenge and deciding who should live and who should die. The person who turns to murder as revenge may have arguments for wrongs done to them, but is taking the lives of others ever justifiable–even if they are maggots in the human race–when one murders those who’ve ‘wronged us’ what does that make us?
On the annoying side, however, flu, sweeps through the police department and eventually makes its way down to the basement. All the references to sniffing, snotty noses dripping all over the place became a little tiresome after a while. I also found Mona, Mørck’s new squeeze to be an incredibly repellant character–doling out favours to Mørck in a rather pavlovian style that is demeaning. I hope he dumps her in the next book.
As a crime book, The Purity of Vengeance steps outside the norm for the way in which it shows how people can become criminals without breaking the law, and by this I’m referring to the character Nete Hermansen, and the way in which “things had gone off in the wrong direction,” and then suddenly she is classed as a delinquent, “a clear-cut case of social retardation,” and marked for life. Sprogø was an all-too real place that existed from 1923-1961, and the irony cannot escape the reader that while most of the women were sent there for what was seen as sexual promiscuity, The Purity of Vengeance shows women there sexually exploited by their jailers and the society that expelled them. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way the author juggles the multiple sub-plots, jumps in time, and ties all the characters and time periods together so smoothly. I knew exactly who I was reading about and exactly what year I was in and author Jussi Adler-Olsen saved an unexpected zinger for the end.
Translated by Martin Aitken