Tag Archives: Danish crime novel

The Lake: Lotte and Søren Hammer

The Lake is the fourth novel in the Konrad Simonsen series from brother and sister writing team Lotte and Søren Hammer. Other titles in the series are: The Hanging, The Girl in the Ice and The Vanished. The Lake is the first title I read, and while some of the characters have established relationships, with minor references made to past cases, the book was easy to read without having finished the prior books in the series.

Crime readers are aware that the genre has many sub-categories. In the case of The Lake, which I had expected to be a straightforward police procedural, the narrative, taking a hard, cold look at the layers involved in human trafficking, is more complex. This is definitely a crime novel written to highlight a social ill–one that occurs under the noses of polite society. In Denmark, prostitution is legal, but after that things get a bit blurry. It’s illegal to pimp, run a brothel, or rent out a room that is used for prostitution.  Wikipedia states that approx. 65% of sex workers in Denmark are migrants/victims of human trafficking (other sources are higher), and it seems seriously doubtful that any of them, signed up for the kind of life they ended up with.

The Lake

The Lake begins with a young Nigerian sex worker being driven off to a remote location to be ‘punished’. Henrik Krag, Jan Podowski and Benedikte Lerche-Larsen are all unhappy with “Jessica,” a teenage girl who “lies there like a dead thing,” and as a result unhappy customers have demanded refunds. Jessica isn’t her real name, of course, “all the girls in her shipment had been given names that began with the letter ‘J’ –it was easier that way.” Henrik and Jan aren’t exactly ‘nice’ people, but somehow, Benedikte, born with all of her privileges, being groomed to take over the family business, finds torture of this sad, confused, frightened, disenfranchised girl amusing. Benedikte is the worst of the lot.

“Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.”

The punishment goes wrong, the girl dies and she’s dumped into a remote lake. Months later her body surfaces, and a policeman interviewed on television made a racist remark. Suddenly the girl’s death garners attention. The murder becomes a cause célèbre, and DS Konrad Simonsen and his team are soon on the case…

The murder takes the police to Kollelse Manor and the noble Blixen-Agerskjold family. The estate bailiff, Frode Otto, with his criminal past, comes to the detectives’ attention. Could he be involved? Personal relationships between the police team are highlighted while the criminals here run the gamut: from the lowly, manipulated thug, to the cold masterminds running the show.

This isn’t a novel that you race through, but it is solid, engaging and thoughtful in its portrayals of the different aspects of prostitution with the criminals creaming off the money in this ugly trade in human flesh. Benedikte’s mother, Katrina, is in the market for some new women, and she has three women to trade back for the newer models. The ones she returns like cashing in a coupon are  “barely used as good as new.”  Here she is looking at “applicants” along with a doctor on hand to give them the once over.

All the women were trying to appear sexy and eager to work to the older, blonde woman sitting at the opposite end of the room, scrutinising them. Rumours had long since spread among them: if Katrina Larsen owned you, you would only have to service one client a day. It sounded incredible but it was the truth. And what luxury it would be–just one customer a day! In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The Lake addresses Denmark’s seemingly open-minded approach to prostitution–a trade in which legal residents, in theory, pay taxes, and are much more likely to approach the police if they are threatened or beaten. Foreign sex workers, however, are much more vulnerable. Denmark is rated as a Tier I country when it comes to Human Trafficking. That means “Countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” It’s both a country of destination and of transit. “The Triangle of Shame” is mentioned here: Niger, Chad and Nigeria–three countries from which “many, many thousands of sex slaves exported to Europe each year.”

review copy

translated by Charlotte Barslund

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hammer Lotte and Søren

The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

First, an admission: I would never have started the Danish crime novel The Forgotten Girls from author Sara Blaedel if I’d known that it was number 7 in a series. Apparently it’s a number 1 bestseller in Denmark, and due to the current demand for Nordic crime fiction, the book will probably fare well in N. America.

I was well into the book before I began to pick up clues that this was not an introduction to Blaedel’s main character, the feisty, single, Louise Rick. Suddenly backstory began to appear in the crime under investigation, and so I took a look at Goodreads and discovered that The Forgotten Girls is number 7 in the Louise Rick series and while I may be missing something, I can’t see where number 1 in the series has been translated into English–although numbers 2, 3 and 4 appear to be available in English.

Excuse me while I rail at the illogicality of this….

The Forgotten GirlsIn The Forgotten Girls, Louise Rick has left the Copenhagen Homicide Department, and in “an unusual step down,” returns to her home town to become “the technical manager of the Special Search Agency”:

Each year, sixteen to seventeen hundred people were reported missing in Denmark. Many turned up again and some were found dead, but according to the assessment of the National Police, there was a crime behind one out of five of the unsolved missing person reports.

Her department was tasked with investigating these cases.

Investigating missing persons reports is, as it turns out, an important distinction; she’s not supposed to investigate or solve murders, and this becomes quite clear as the plot moves on. As head of the New Special Search agency, Louise arrives at the right moment, for shortly after her arrival, she gets her first case. An autopsy is conducted on a woman found dead in the woods near a lake in mid-Zealand, and although she appeared to die from injuries from a fall, there are some bizarre aspects to the case. The woman was barefoot and dressed in old-fashioned shabby clothing. No one has stepped forward to identify the mystery woman in spite of the fact that she has a huge scar that destroyed one side of her face. She also had horribly neglected teeth and a long-ago broken bone in her forearm that was not treated. Someone must be missing this woman, so why has no one claimed the body?

So this is the central mystery to the story, and eventually Louise and her new partner, Eik Nordstrøm, a man who seems to make a habit out of drinking hard and showing up for work late, find that their investigation takes them back into the past and the archaic attitudes towards treating the mentally handicapped.

Ok, enough of the plot.

There’s a lot of backstory here: some present–some absent–and there were moments when I wondered why on earth Louise decided to go back to her old stomping grounds where everyone is so friggin’ freaky. This a community in which a local bully holds sway over his peers, weirdos live in the woods, and people seem to be either running around hanging themselves or perpetuating rape. Ok, a bit of exaggeration, but as the distant sound of banjos played in my head, there did indeed seem to be a thread here which more than hints that the locals are odd. Not only are the locals strange, but the old gang from school don’t exactly remember Louise fondly. She frequently runs into the old crowd and these encounters just bring back a lot of painful memories. Some catch-up paragraphs helped explain some of the incidents in Louise’s past but her decision to return home, without the backstory, seemed either misguided or a moment of temporary insanity. Perhaps the earlier books fill in that gap.

The mystery of the dead woman is weighed against various personal problems faced by Louise. Her friend, the journalist Camilla, is planning a big wedding to a very wealthy man, and Louise’s involvement in her work may lead to difficulties with establishing boundaries with a neighbour. The ending seemed a little too Hollywood for me (read over-the-top), and I guessed the solution to the mystery way back, and that left me wondering what the hell the police were playing at. In spite of the fact that both the treatment of mentally ill and the mentally handicapped play significant roles in the tale, this is not a deep crime novel. Instead, its appeal probably rests on attachment to the characters and their lives, and since I haven’t read the other 6 books, I can’t comment on the series or how this book stands compared to the rest. However, Louise, as an unsubtle, two-dimensional main character, didn’t have much appeal for this reader–although I did warm to Eik when, after interviewing a particularly bitter, unhappy witness, he states that “that’s enough to make you want a drink,” when we already know that he doesn’t need much of an excuse.

Translated by Signe Rød Golly

Review copy

 

12 Comments

Filed under Blaedel, Sara, Fiction

The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“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….

The purity of vengeanceFor 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

review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Adler-Olsen Jussi, Fiction

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“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.

16 Comments

Filed under Adler-Olsen Jussi, Fiction