November Reader's Den: The Keeper of Lost Causes, Part 1
Welcome to November in The Reader’s Den. Scandinavian crime authors have been very popular in the last couple of years, and deservedly so. Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark’s number one crime writer and is also very popular in Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands. He started writing fiction in 1997, but no English translations of his work were available until 2011.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q mystery series and his first book translated into English (translation by Lisa Hartford ). The plot revolves around an attractive, popular Member of the Danish Parliament, Merete Lynggaard, who disappeared from a ferry in 2002 while on a holiday trip to Germany with her brother Uffe. There were no clues, no blood, no corpse, no ransom note, and no obvious motives. The only potential eyewitness (and/or perpetrator) is her emotionally damaged, socially retarded brother. He can’t tell them what happened because he has not spoken since the car crash that left them orphaned 16 years ago when he was 13 and Merete was 16. Although her remains were never found, the police suspect Merete fell (or possibly was pushed) from the ship and drowned. Living or dead, her whereabouts are unknown.
Five years later, homicide detective Carl Morck, upon returning from leave following a shooting that wounded him, killed one of his partners and paralyzed another, is “promoted” to head of Department Q, a new unit dedicated to solving cold cases. Since it is located in the basement of police headquarters in Copenhagen, Morck is looking forward to spending his days smoking cigarettes, surfing the Internet, taking catnaps, and generally staying well under the radar of his boss and everybody else. However, his only employee, Assad, a Syrian refugee filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm who functions as combination personal assistant/janitor/secretary, insists on keeping both of them busy. Under duress, Morck selects his first cold case, Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance.
Considering all the Scandinavian authors available, why did I pick this book and this author? Although there are different things that influence what books a reader chooses, for me plot and pacing are primary. I like to read books that keep me turning the pages, eager to see what happens next, and Adler-Olsen does that in spades. The action shifts in alternate chapters from Merete’s experiences before and after her disappearance in 2002 to Morck’s activities in 2007. I like a complicated plot, one that keeps me guessing as I'm turning the pages. However, it also has to be "believable", no gaping holes or dangling threads.
Another incentive to continue reading a book is the characters: do you like them, are they believable, are they interesting? I find Carl Morck and his immediate circle of characters likeable and quirky, I care about them. There have been books I walked away from because I didn’t care what happened to the characters, despite the plot.
For some readers, the physical location and point in time in which the story is set is important. If place is important to you, here's a link to other Mysteries with a Sense of Place. For example, I am immediately drawn to almost any story set in Paris, whether past or present. One of my colleagues likes reading stories set in Germany between the two World Wars, others like Regency romances. This is a contemporary story, set in Denmark, primarily in and around Copenhagen. Those aspects weren’t a draw for me, but learning the similarities and differences of contemporary life in another culture was a bonus.
That said, what I recognized and appreciated in this novel that I haven’t found in crime novels by other Scandinavian authors was a sense of humor. I found myself laughing aloud at Morck’s opinions of his boss and authority in general, as well as his reactions to Assad’s unquenchable energy and undrinkable mint tea, his estranged wife Vigga and her procession of young starving artist lovers, and the department secretary, the lovely and unattainable Lis. I was reminded of the old television sit-com Barney Miller, with Hal Linden and Abe Vigoda. It also reminds me of David Baldacci’s Camel Club series with its cast of quirky characters. Perhaps the juxtaposition of Morck’s humor with the grisly details of Merete’s fate and the malice behind it provides a welcome respite.
I hope you have an opportunity to begin reading The Keeper of Lost Causes soon. In Part 2, I’ll talk more about the author and the remaining Department Q novels; number six is supposed to be published next month, December 2014. Plus I will give you a list of other Scandinavian authors so you can compare and contrast in future reading.