I had heard a lot about Jussi Adler-Olsen and his psychological thriller, The Keeper of Lost Causes, including that his work rivals that of Stieg Larsson. As an FYI for our European readers: This novel was originally published as Kvinden i buret (The Woman in the Cage) in 2007, and is the first novel in the award-winning Department Q series. Also note that although The Keeper of Lost Causes is the U.S. title, the author’s web site indicates it may be released elsewhere in the world under the title Mercy.
The Department Q series routinely makes the bestseller list in Northern Europe. It’s great that we’re finally getting a chance to read Denmark’s top thriller author’s work! I am definitely hooked on this series and look forward to reading the other three novels as soon as they’re published!
Carl Morck used to be one of Copenhagen’s finest detectives but he’s had it. The last straw was watching his two closest friends and co-workers get gunned down recently. Although he took a bullet, he feels to blame because he never drew his gun, and played dead. One co-worker is dead and one is paralyzed from the neck down, and Carl is heavily traumatized. Now Carl’s just biding time until he can retire and he isn’t going to do anything to prevent him from living to enjoy retirement. That means he doesn’t intend to do anything at all.
Carl is very brash and outspoken on the best of days and ticks off almost everyone he meets. He’s seen as the department’s problem child at the moment. His boss just doesn’t know what to do with him and then the ideal solution lands on his desk. Denmark has launched a new program to resolve as many of its coldest case files as possible, and is so committed to funding the program that it has allocated massive funding for it. Carl’s boss sees a way to kill two birds with one stone: 1) he can get Carl out of his hair because it won’t matter that Carl has no motivation since no one can really expect most of these old cases to actually be solved; and 2) he can siphon off funds to infuse his regular department with badly needed funding at the program’s expense.
And so Department Q is born. Carl is given a promotion and the basement storage area is turned haphazardly in Department Q. He knows he’s been put out to pasture so he decides to milk it for all it’s worth. After all, with no one else in the department he couldn’t get anything done if he wanted to and he doesn’t want to. He’d rather visit his partner in rehab and try to reconcile his survivor’s guilt.
In his efforts to milk the situation, Carl demands an assistant who can clean the basement and gets handed Assad by some stroke of sheer genius. Assad is highly motivated, a very fast worker, very curious, cleans like a genie, makes Turkish coffee that’s awful, and organizes the case files and begins to study them because he has nothing left to do. As he starts asking very pointed questions about the case files, and pointing out inconsistencies and gaps in the investigations, Carl begins to get interested despite himself. In short, Assad is the motivation Carl needed to get back into the game. Assad also has the social skills Carl lacks, so he’s able to charm information out of co-workers and other bureaucrats in a way that Carl never could. He also uses those invaluable skills to placate and motivate the ever squabbling Carl. The artful way Assad handles Carl and bureaucracy makes for delightful reading.
Soon they are both obsessed with a case involving Merete Lynggaard, a high ranking Danish official who disappeared five years before while on a ferry with her mentally disabled, mute brother. Merete was known for being uncorruptable and had a very promising political career. Speculation was that she had fallen overboard or been pushed overboard accidentally by her brother. The case had never gone anywhere and she has long been presumed dead. Carl and Assad are determined to find out what happened to her, despite the snide remarks they get about it from others in Carl’s old department upstairs. They don’t know if she’s dead or alive but they are determined to find out.
In The Keeper of Lost Causes, Carl’s story is interwoven with Merete’s. That’s why I’ve included the trailer above because it sheds light on Merete’s part of the story but not enough to create a spoiler. I was hooked immediately and then was up half the night reading this novel because I was spellbound and had to know what happened!
I like curmudgeons, which Carl definitely is, and loved the dynamic between Carl and Assad. They’re like the perfect odd couple, with all the funny moments that come from that kind of pairing. They also make a brilliant investigative team. I also loved Merete’s character. She’s has enormous integrity, is fearless and determined, and is a heroic character on many levels.
So does this novel live up to the hype that it rivals the Stieg Larsson novels? I’ll let you be the judge but I think it does and I’m thrilled! I’m counting the days until the next novel in the Department Q series is released in the U.S., and it can’t happen fast enough for me! I highly recommend The Keeper of Lost Causes!
The Keeper of Lost Causes was released today, so if you want to buy it just choose from any of the online booksellers in the top right column.
Comment if you know Jussi Adler-Olsen’s work and be sure to share, like and/or +1 this review if you liked it
Below are excerpts from a recent interview with the author, Jussi Adler-Olsen:
What would you most like your American readers to take away from The Keeper of Lost Causes?
Just as in the case of Mad Men, The Sopranos and other good series, I hope the reader gets to know the main characters so intimately that he or she practically cannot live without them once the book is read. That the reader will enter spheres of tension and excitement he hasn’t experienced before, but is determined to carry on, even if it costs a couple of hours’ sleep. That the reader can’t help laughing one minute, only to be shivering with hair-raising suspense the next.
Carl Mørck is a wonderfully realized and nuanced character; he’s dark, funny, vulnerable, tough, ironic, and completely human as he works to untangle the myriad complications of his many undefined relationships. Where did you get the inspiration for this terrific character?
Well, actually I’m not a crime-writer, I write thrillers, where everything can happen and where the primary intention is to prevent a crime from occurring, not “merely” solve it. So I needed to get rid of all the restrictions that a police officer has in his daily work in terms of narrow geographic divisions and what kind of crimes he is supposed to work on. I had to invent a character that nobody wanted to work with, so he could be on his own and do precisely as he wanted… I decided a good portion of irony, satire and self-irony–combined with humor–were going to be important components of this main character.
Despite the horrific nature of the crime in The Keeper of Lost Causes, there are many moments of skillfully executed comic relief. How big a part, for you, does humor play in this novel?
The shortest distance between two people has always been laughter. A single person’s laughter in a large gathering can infect everyone. Laughter can be heard at a distance of 500 feet and, when used conscientiously, can build bridges over everything. The Department Q series deals with many serious topics, and in that context humor serves a number of purposes. It creates some breathing room for the reader where the tension is a little too high. It builds bridges between the lead characters–Carl, Assad and, later, Rose–and it also builds bridges over the great chasm of political disagreements that are currently so prevalent in Denmark and many other places in the world. With humor you can avoid pedantry and superciliousness that never achieves anything positive, anyway.