SEPTEMBER 27, 2014
I WAS INTRODUCED to Nordic noir in the same way as most readers: someone handed me a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When the novel was at the peak of its popularity, I had resisted reading it, my contrarian streak kicking in. But a woman named Deb, one of my most trusted booksellers at my favorite local independent, Garden District Books, finally won me over. She put the book in my hands and said, “Forget the hype. You have to read this book.” As opposed to, “You have to read this book.” She said, “It starts slow, but hang in there until she shows up, and then, boom, it’s off to the races.” She was right.
I devoured the trilogy and have seen all the films. (For the record, I’m in the Rooney Mara camp.) What I didn’t do, though, was make the leap to Nordic noir, as the books that followed in the wake of Dragon’s popularity came to be called in the States. I think it’s because Lisbeth Salander isn’t in them, and she is what pulled me through Stieg Larsson’s sometimes wordy and wandering trilogy. I watched people around me latch onto Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbø, and Lars Kepler, but the pull wasn’t there, which kind of mystified me. I like character-driven. I like dark. But I never picked one up. I think maybe I just couldn’t decide where to begin. I needed a guide. And then, a couple of years ago, lightning struck a second time.
I was in Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, having this very same conversation with one of their booksellers. She pulled me aside and put a book in my hands. She said, “You have to read this. You’ll love it.” That book was The Keeper of Lost Causes, the first Department Q novel by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. She was right. I did love it. And I am now a committed fan of Detective Inspector Carl Mørck and Adler-Olsen’s internationally renowned, best-selling Department Q series.
Detective Inspector Mørck, the series’s protagonist, is a tarnished star in the Copenhagen police department. He’s a character well known to crime fiction fans, the grizzled iconoclast detective, but he’s brought to life in a way that brings a new spark to the type. His prickly personality and harsh temper — and his imploded marriage — remind me of Idris Elba’s title character in the BBC show Luther.
Despite his personal problems, Mørck’s fellow cops respect his investigative skills. As part of a three-man team, he makes a name for himself working important and difficult cases. Then tragedy strikes. Mørck sees his life and career derail when the other two detectives on his team are gunned down in an ambush. One is killed, the other paralyzed. Mørck, grazed by a bullet in the shooting and pinned under the fallen bodies of his comrades, can offer no response. He is left to live with the guilt and humiliation of his failure to defend his partners. Adding to his disgrace, after a leave of absence, he is moved from Department A, the homicide division, to the basement of headquarters, where he is sentenced to await his retirement as the head of Department Q, the Copenhagen police department’s newly formed cold case squad. Here he is assigned a civilian assistant named Assad, an Arab immigrant with odd habits and a nebulous personal history.
What Mørck and Assad are supposed to accomplish is vague. This squad of two, we soon learn, hasn’t been formed in the interest of justice, but as a personal favor to a politician and as a way to funnel extra money to the police department. Like the boxes of files that surround them in the basement, Mørck and Assad have been packed away for indefinite storage. But neither man in this odd couple has any interest in collecting dust. Both are bloodhounds at heart, and soon they sink their teeth into the case of a long-missing politician.
Thus begins the first book, The Keeper of Lost Causes. By the time we reach The Marco Effect, the fifth in the series, Mørck and Assad have picked up a goth-tinged office manager named Rose, who comes swathed in black clothes and her own mysteries. By joining the squad, she in effect reconstitutes Mørck’s original team, except that instead of working with two middle-aged white men like himself, Mørck now works with a member of a racial minority and a woman, both younger. It’s an interesting turn, the formation and functioning of this new triad, and it makes for some of the series’s best character-driven moments. It also serves a central theme of the series: a rapidly and bumpily evolving Denmark. American readers will recognize many of the growing pains.
By now, our Danish Holmes-Watson-Mrs. Hudson (or Batman-Robin-Alfred, if you prefer) has solved four books worth of mysteries, dealing with kidnappers, religious fanatics, serial killers, and neo-Nazis. They’ve uncovered grisly institutional as well as individual evils. And Department Q, despite Mørck’s constant pursuit of a cigarette break and an afternoon nap at his desk, has made a name for itself. Every now and again, begrudging praise even trickles down to the basement from Mørck’s old co-workers in the homicide department upstairs.
Much of what has made the series so successful and enjoyable continues to shine in The Marco Effect. Mørck, with his innate drive toward justice and his deeply buried but true empathy for the victims he defends, is easy to root for. Assad and Rose continue to be fascinating characters in their own right, offering much more than comic relief and exposition, with intriguing personalities and ideas of their own. Adler-Olsen controls his complicated plot, one that ranges from Africa to the Caribbean and back to Denmark, with aplomb. His large cast of characters, including but not limited to the titular runaway pickpocket (who may or may not be a Gypsy), African assassins, and Danish embezzlers, is orchestrated with authority and deftness. Adler-Olsen’s control of the world he has created is complete.
Continuing with a series hallmark and perhaps its greatest strength, we spend significant time with not only the investigators, but also with the wealthy and powerful villains, with their street-level minions, and with the poor and middle-class victims caught up in the ranging conspiracies at the heart of the Department Q novels. It’s an approach that works well. It gives the reader the sense of a fully fleshed-out society inhabited by complex and contradictory people, and also provides Adler-Olsen a chance to explore the vast moral and legal expanse of gray between good and evil. The multiple storylines and points of view also give Adler-Olsen opportunity to examine in depth people at many different levels of Danish society, from the most marginalized to the most powerful.
Most of the time this complicated and generous approach to storytelling succeeds at a very high level, a tribute to Adler-Olsen’s enduring skill and ranging imagination.
Most of the time.
Much like the previous novel, The Purity of Vengeance, when we are away from the investigators and their pursuits, The Marco Effect flags. And Marco Jameson, our villain, is interesting as an idea, but lacks in execution. A teenager who was raised as a beggar and a thief in a clan of the same who refer to themselves as Gypsies though their ethnicity is vague — he’s looking to break from the clan and its sinister leader. His flight means being hunted in the city streets by the band of criminals and blood family he abandoned. When we’re in his head, though, he’s a bit of a bore, too simple and clear in his motives and thoughts. He seems oddly naive at times for someone who was raised on the streets, and he’s hardly the emotional and psychological tinderbox a 15-year-old criminal fugitive surviving by his wits could be. He starts out as a bit of a kicked puppy, and largely stays that way. I kept waiting for him to become special, in the way Adler-Olsen’s characters so often do, but instead I often found myself impatient for his sections to conclude. This is true also of Adler-Olsen’s businessmen conspirators, who are working together to protect a scheme allowing them to embezzle funds from an African charity to support their troubled bank during a financial crisis. Even a late twist in a key player’s identity can’t change the impression that, as a collection of greedy villains in fancy suits, they come across as stock and underdeveloped, especially in comparison to the neo-Nazi abortion doctors of The Purity of Vengeance, the ex-cultish kidnapper of A Conspiracy of Faith, or the sociopathic exotic game hunters of The Absent One.
Which is not to say there are not frightening baddies to fear and to root against. Just wait until you meet Mammy and Boy. And while I never really connected with Marco emotionally, the mother and daughter of one of the story’s murder victims had me foaming at the mouth for vengeance. In addition, you’ll feel a thrilling lurch in your gut when Adler-Olsen stomps on the gas pedal to accelerate an already quickly moving plot. It’s a surge in momentum he sustains until the end. The surprises keep coming.
The quibbles above aside, The Marco Effect arrives as a welcome addition to the Department Q series. It’s a rich, immersive, and compelling, if flawed, novel. It has only amped up my enthusiasm for Adler-Olsen’s work. Here’s hoping the author’s passion for his special cast of characters and their beloved and troubled Denmark endures as well.
Bill Loehfelm is the author of five novels, including The Devil in Her Way, and The Devil She Knows, the first two books in the Maureen Coughlin crime fiction series, as well as the stand-alones, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills.