Author: Jussi Adler-Olsen

2011, Dutton

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first English-translated book in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestselling Danish crime series, about the unique Department Q. It stars Carl Morck, who’s one of Copenhagen’s best detectives… until he falls into an ambush and watches his partner crippled and another cop killed.

Morck is deeply traumatized by the incident, and his passion for detective work vanishes. Since his superiors can’t fire him without starting a union battle, they devise a plan to stash Morck away by creating a new department for high-profile cold cases, Department Q. Morck’s assignment to Q is technically a promotion, which appeases the police union, but really it’s a way to put Morck on ice. Nobody will care if the traumatized detective never solves one of the years-old crimes assigned to him, so it’s the perfect place for him to recuperate (i.e. not work very hard). Meanwhile, the bosses can route most of the government money earmarked for Dept. Q to their underfunded homicide division.

Morck, for his part, is more than happy to sit around staring at the covers of case files. Until, that is, he runs across an interesting case and his curiosity drags him back into an investigation. Keeper follows that investigation as a straightforward, quite entertaining police procedural.

The case Morck stumbles upon is the five-year-old disappearance of a prominent, attractive female politician, Merete Lynggaard, and the narrative bounces back and forth between Merete’s experience and Carl’s unraveling the case.

Though police originally thought Merete fell into the ocean during a nighttime cruise, she was actually kidnapped and imprisoned by mysterious people. The bulk of Merete’s sections detail the torments she faces in captivity: her kidnappers have put her in an empty room without so much as a window to the outside world. She lives in complete darkness for a year, without a toothbrush or a change of clothes. After 12 months, her tormentors turn on the lights for the next year, and increase the air pressure by one atmosphere, as they will each year until they decide to kill her by dropping the pressure back to normal and making all the tissues in her body explode.

Adler-Olsen’s strength lies in crafting suspense, and these consistently nauseating looks into Merete’s imprisonment serve just that purpose. As Morck investigates, uncovering one clue after another, the vignettes describing the brutality of Merete’s imprisonment provide urgency and stoke the need to see the bad people punished. In this way, Keeper reads like a much more polished, much more gripping version of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo Girl books.

Unfortunately, Adler-Olsen’s writing gets muddied by a rough translation, which dilutes his prose and dialogue.

He looked like a boy whose request for an ice cream cone had been refused, but knows that if he stands there long enough, there’s still a chance he might get one.

Still, he’s a much sharper writer than Larsson, and he’s one of the best I’ve read from the new wave of Scandinavian crime novelists. For every one of those seemingly mandatory translation train wrecks, you get something pretty good. Lines are never quite phrased well in English, but there are a few that you can tell might have been good in the original Danish. Like this description of a mental ward:

Egely was a whitewashed building that splendidly proclaimed its purpose. No one ever entered voluntarily, and it was far from easy for anyone to get out. It was obvious that this was not a place for finger-painting or guitar lessons. This was where people with money and status placed the weak members of their families.

Similarly half-decent are Adler-Olsen’s characterizations of Morck’s new department and his capable but weird sidekick, Assad. Both are given a depth of attention that implies they will be around for the sequels. Morck himself is an amusing hero, if not exactly riveting on his own.

My biggest complaint is that, for the reader, the discovery of the evil mastermind behind this plot comes not from Carl’s investigation, but from that mastermind simply revealing himself to Merete on a whim, as he had categorically refused to do for five years. Still, while that feels programmatic and disappointing, it is necessary for the story, and Adler-Olsen manages to keep the suspense high even after the kidnappers are unmasked, which helps a lot.

All in all, this is a well-paced procedural mystery. Certainly not the best I’ve read, but better than most of these translated pulp novels, and a perfect fit for any fans of Scandinavian crime novels.

Similar reads: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, by Stieg Larsson