Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark
By Miriam R. Kramer
Lifestyle gurus and sociologists extol Denmark as a Scandinavian wonderland, a nation that is possibly the most happy, or at least content, in the world. That assessment may be the truth, but it certainly is not in the imagination of Danish author, publisher, musician, and entrepreneur Jussi Adler-Olsen. He writes the Department Q mystery novels, a series that explodes like a bomb, flinging Denmark’s social and political dirty laundry, criminals, and cops into the center of the carnage. The author shares a common personal background with popular Norwegian thriller author, Jo Nesbø. He also parallels Nesbø somewhat in the way his main character, Carl Mørck, a policeman, dives into the seamy underbelly of society. Recently I have been ensconced in Nordic noir novels, so reading The Keeper of Lost Causes, The Absent One, and A Conspiracy of Faith has been a fun way to lose myself in a madcap subterranean view of dirty Denmark.
In The Keeper of Lost Causes, we first meet Carl Mørck, a morose, cynical detective, a true contrarian with decided views on government and police corruption, and a tendency to take naps. He does not play well with others and has an odd existence at home, living with his stepson and a closeted gay boarder while his separated wife lives in a garden cottage some ways away with her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend. Yet he stands out in the police force as a stubborn and determined officer who diligently solves his cases. So the chief of homicide digs money out of government funds to create a department for him somewhere reasonably far away—Department Q in the basement. While in the same building as the regular police, it remains a galaxy away from the politics and interpersonal maneuverings in Department A.
Carl, who has PTSD from a previous botched investigation, has been assigned to be the head of this new department to give him time to recover away from others. Department Q solves leftover cold cases of special interest. Carl has been given an office off the basement corridor with a fly problem, no windows, asbestos issues, and two assigned assistants, including at first a unexpectedly jolly and efficient Syrian refugee who starts by mopping the floor and making tea and coffee, until his diligence and insights help Carl investigate his new case. In The Absent One, the next book in the series, the police department also thrust upon him an abrasive secretary who hides a strange secret. In fact, Department Q is the department of odd and often gory secrets, and the two- to three-person team nimbly fits the warped pieces of old jigsaw puzzles together with intuition and peculiar insights that come from their hidden selves.
The Keeper of Lost Causes focuses on the disappearance of a beautiful politician, Merete Lynggard, who is on her way up the ladder of Danish politics, navigating its bureaucracy with panache. She suddenly vanished five years earlier from a ferry when traveling with her brain-damaged brother, Uffe, who is found wandering the German countryside afterwards. When Carl begins to half-heartedly poke around, interviewing passengers and wondering whether he is wasting his time with someone who committed suicide or fell off the boat, he is suddenly surprised at the persistence of his assistant, Assad, whom he begins to take seriously. As Carl grumbles constantly about his corridor office, whose paint job reminds him of an Eastern European hospital, his tiny team begins to come together.
After solving his first cold case, Carl continues to offer sarcastic and frustrated insights into Danish politics, the police department, publishing, business, and Danish social hierarchies. Often his views are very funny, as are those of his refugee assistant. Assad mangles Danish and sometimes presents a superficial image of himself as someone not to be taken seriously, which proves to be a smoke screen as he repeatedly exhibits initiative, sharp investigative skills, and unusual fighting techniques. Carl the insular contrarian then gains a new secretary named Rose, a grating Goth-looking woman who hates his smoking. She has the tendency to say inadvertently offensive stereotypes about Arabs that Assad ignores, but she also has the efficiency that begins to bring the three together as a team.
In The Absent One, his second shelved case, he is on the hunt for a member of the wealthy upper crust of Danish society, Kristen-Marie Lassen, known as Kimmie, who has lived as a bag lady for years after a nervous breakdown, dropping the societal role expected of her. He has the hunch that she is the key to solving a bunch of murders committed by fellow members of her elite boarding school. They resemble the gang from A Clockwork Orange in getting their kicks from brutality and hunting exotic animals. When Carl and Assad start putting the pieces together regarding the gang’s history, they hunt these potential criminals and wealthy “Masters of the Universe.” Yet the hunters may become the hunted, with Kimmie an unpredictable hand grenade who may appear at any moment.
Through Carl Mørck and his team, Adler-Olsen’s third book in the series, A Conspiracy of Faith, brings out his sardonic views on strange religious sects in Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia. When a message in a tar-sealed bottle arrives by sea near John o’ Groats in Scotland, a police officer sees remnants of blood inside and suspects that it may contain a message relating to a violent crime. When this message is examined and identified as sub-standard Danish, it is sent on to Department Q, which works to decipher words and letters that have disappeared after the years it spent bobbing in the ocean. The assistant Rose suddenly disappears, substituting her equally weird and garish twin sister, Yrsa, whose peroxide perm and clothes are the only real physical difference between them. Yrsa’s different personality and ability to do crosswords proves a useful key in cracking the inadvertent code of the message in the bottle. During her stint at Department Q, she is very eccentric, as odd as her sister. She is one of the many secrets that lingers in the department, along with the unusual nature of Assad’s sharp intelligence and ability to fight liked a trained warrior. When Carl finds the address of Assad’s apartment, he finds that it is empty, and that Assad rarely if ever uses it. His assistant offers explanations, and Carl accepts them momentarily as he focuses on the case at hand.
With the help of forensics and the team’s diligence, they begin to believe that this garbled message indicates a serial murderer, one who focuses on harshly domineering, insulated religious groups that stick to themselves and do not report missing persons. In his personal life, Carl and the therapist he respects but also physically wants begin to dig deep into his guilt and PTSD, the result of an unsolved investigation that ended in violence. He was left alive, with one colleague dead, and the other, Hardy Henningsen, paralyzed from the neck down. Desperate, Hardy asks Carl to help him commit suicide or take him away from the hospital. Feeling both guilt and tenderness, he thinks about adding another factor to his household, already overflowing with odd, random people.
Adler-Olsen had now written six novels in the Department Q series, and I will continue reading them. These books are picaresque, over-the-top stories featuring quirkiness, political incorrectness, and black humor. Yet at the same time Mørck, his colleagues and opponents toss out dark insights into human nature, criminal behavior, European underworld influences and Danish society that ring true, although seen mostly through this anti-hero’s very jaded lens.
Adler-Olsen’s Nordic noir novels are quite different from those of Jo Nesbø, despite the authors’ similar backgrounds. Nesbø writes a more serious, carefully organized, and detailed book, with a hero who is a loner and a former addict. Adler-Olsen’s series has some relationship to Stieg Larsson’s blockbusters in commenting on society, although Larsson went into Swedish politics and societal problems in much greater depth and created a character for the ages with the amazing Lisbeth Salander. In the end, though, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novels skate like humorous dragonflies across a scummy, nasty pond, quick-reading and enjoyable. Hamlet himself says in Act 1, Scene 5: “[M]eet it is I set it down, That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” Despite some less-than-ideal English translations and exaggerated scenarios, these procedurals are quite simply bizarre and fun to read. After the third book, Adler-Olsen has left some lingering mysteries about the characters in Department Q. I want to continue to solve these mysteries about the cast of strange characters along with their peculiar and engaging cold cases.