I haven’t had a chance to respond to most of the feedback on my post about moving from Arizona to Delaware, but I do want to thank everyone who wrote to offer praise, support, prayers, or other kind words. I’ve read it all and I appreciate every bit of it.
Jussi Adler-Olson’s first Department Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, seems to have capitalized on the craze over Stieg Larsson’s novels to become a best-seller here in the U.S., another Scandinavian crime novel featuring an emotionally scarred detective as its protagonist. Adler-Olson’s story relies less on shock value to create narrative greed and features much stronger prose, so while it lacks the social criticism inherent on Larsson’s work it’s a much better novel overall.
Department Q is what we’d call a cold case department, created by the Danish government (in the novel, at least) as a matter of political expediency and used by one police chief to put homicide detective Carl Mørck out to pasture. Mørck was one of three detectives ambushed at a crime scene shortly before the novel opens, an attack that killed one of his colleagues and left the other paralyzed, while he is left to deal with survivor’s guilt and his own inability to deal with these emotions. The unsolved disappearance of a popular, pretty Danish politican five years earlier becomes the case that draws Mørck out of his depression, appealing to his curious side and his insatiable need to find the answer, while also drawing him into a peculiar partnership with his entry-level assistant, Assad, a man of surprising skills and an uncertain background.
The crimes at the center of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were extremely disturbing, involving violent rapes, torture, and murder, although exposing and criticizing a culture of violence against women was Larsson’s main point in writing the books. It made the first book an unpleasant read at times, even more so than in the more mundane passages where the book simply suffered from awkward prose. Here, the crime is vicious but the violence is mostly threatened and isn’t sexual in nature, while the criminal is deeply disturbed but not the kind of sadistic serial killer at the center of Larsson’s first book. Murderers of both sorts exist in the real world, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about all of them; Adler-Olson creates plenty of tension and loathing without having to resort to torture-porn writing.
The real appeal of The Keeper of Lost Causes is its adherence to classic detective/mystery structures in the investigation. Mørck and Assad do actual legwork and uncover the crime bit by bit, relying very little on coincidences and never needing a huge leap forward just to get the reader to the denouement in time to finish the novel. Adler-Olson limits the duo’s discoveries to what they could glean from the available evidence and reasonable deduction, even though the reader is generally a step or two ahead thanks to the author’s inclusion of passages from the perspective of the kidnapping victim (whom the detectives don’t know is alive until the very end of the book). Modern crime novels frequently focus so much on building up the personality of the lead detective – he’s troubled, he’s an addict, he doesn’t play by the rules, blah blah blah – that they forget to build the investigation slowly, with incremental progress, as you might expect a real process of deduction to progress. Adler-Olson probably shouldn’t be praised for doing something so obvious, but when it’s not that common in my exposure to this branch of popular fiction, it feels like it’s worth the plaudits.