March 19, 2020
(++++) DOWN IN THE DEPTHS
The Keeper of Lost Causes: A Department Q Novel. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by Lisa Hartford. Dutton. $18.
Victim 2117: A Department Q Novel. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by William Frost. Dutton. $28.
Edgar Allan Poe may have created the modern detective story and developed the ratiocinative investigator epitomized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but the modern detective – a human being of flawed and/or uncertain personality and motivation – is more clearly traceable to Dashiell Hammett, whose prototypes (The Continental, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles) remain recognizable in detective stories worldwide even today. Indeed, they are so recognizable that they are easily parodied: the 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit sketches Eddie Valiant in just a few seconds of screen time by drawing on the tropes of the genre. It takes an author of considerable skill to get past the clichés of the modern detective genre and create a cast of characters – built around a central character – in such a way that a modern police procedural novel can be taken seriously and can engage readers genuinely and without parody. Danish novelist Jussi Adler-Olsen has shown himself to be an author with the skill needed to create believable characters in complex (indeed, somewhat over-plotted) circumstances that draw very clearly on readers’ expectations where detective fiction is concerned while at the same time producing gripping narratives that keep the audience coming back for more.
Victim 2117 is Adler-Olsen’s eighth and most-recent foray into the world he has created, and while it can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel, it gains something if readers first spend some time with the initial entry in the Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes (first published in Great Britain in 2007 with the pithy, darkly ironic, more-apt title Mercy). The value of this first book is not just that it introduces the central character, Carl Mørck (pronounced about half-way between “Mork” and “Murk”), and gives him the usual background and personality quirks, although it does that: he is separated but at this time not quite divorced, he continues to have somewhat too many ties (financial, not emotional) to his almost-ex, he has both a lodger and his stepson living in his house, and he has had the traditional awful tragedy in his life. Carl and his two partners were ambushed during a murder investigation – with one of them dying, one being paralyzed, and Carl considering himself somehow responsible because he did not draw his gun against the unseen assailants and was not particularly badly wounded. So we have a top Copenhagen detective with a bad case of survivor’s guilt, plus the requisite prickly personality and difficulty getting along with others in his department. But he is too good to fire, so instead is banished to the depths of police headquarters (that is, the basement, which is symbolic of how low he has sunk) and assigned to run the newly created “cold-case” Department Q (the first book explains how it got that designation). He is the sole person in the department until he demands an assistant and is handed a (possible) Syrian refugee named (possibly) Hafez el-Assad – same name as that nation’s one-time dictator. And the assistant has many talents, some of them amusing, along with many quirks, some of them potentially troubling.
All this emerges in the first book – but even more valuable to readers interested in the eighth is that the first novel is a perfect introduction to Adler-Olsen’s style, to the extent that it comes through in translation from Danish. There are Scandinavian references that Americans will understand readily enough (“the ragnarok of his office”) and others that they will not (“his eyes fixed on the terrazzo floor and its swastika patterns” – this has nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism). There are lists that will be only partially clear to many non-Danes: “Winnie the Pooh, Don Quixote, the Lady of the Camellias, and Smilla all stormed through her head.” There are neat, short, to-the-point descriptive passages: “The barbecue gang was a little group of fanatics who all lived close by and who thought that beefsteak was so much better if it first languished for a while on a charcoal grill until it tasted neither of beef nor steak.” But there are also clichés: “Was it possible this guy was a diamond in the rough?” And there are passages created more for effect than believability, as when someone who is trapped and imprisoned laboriously scratches out a message to be found after her death, yet somehow, despite the agonizingly slow and painstaking use of an inadequate tool, creates elaborate scratched-in-the-floor sentences and phrases – for example, “Lasse, the owner of this building,” rather than, say, “Bldg owner Lasse.”
However, the fact that the central mystery in The Keeper of Lost Causes – the disappearance five years earlier of a rising star in Danish politics – turns out not to be an out-and-out murder, even though it has been designated a homicide “cold case,” shows how adeptly Adler-Olsen accepts and then adapts the detective/procedural form. And readers who absorb the unusual elements of his approach (mostly positive but occasionally negative) and style (at least his translated style) from the first Department Q book will get a great deal more out of the eighth.
Victim 2117 has a plot every bit as elaborate and neatly assembled as that of The Keeper of Lost Causes, but by now there are story elements that have resonance beyond the latest novel itself – which is one reason it helps to know the original setup of the series. The emotional detritus of the first book, and succeeding ones, is everywhere. Department Q is now slightly larger, peopled with souls just as damaged as Carl’s, so Adler-Olsen has more personalities whose relationships and foibles he can explore. Carl, in fact, is not really the central character here. This is because the first book’s Assad is still around and initially still mysterious, and this turns out to be crucially important, since the new book’s title refers to the 2,117th refugee to die in the Mediterranean – and the whole issue of refugees trying to escape the Middle East becomes central for Assad, who, after all, did just that, even if he has been less than forthcoming about a past that returns to haunt him profoundly in Victim 2117. “Carl nodded and pictured Assad the day he started down here in the basement over ten years ago, how he had introduced himself as Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet. But inside, he was really Zaid al-Asadi: a special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker. The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”
One character in the new novel has a distorted resemblance to one in the sequence’s first book: there is a devil-ridden parallel to Carl’s then-teenage stepson in the new book’s desperately overwrought, computer-obsessed teen, Alexander – although Alexander is unhinged and a great deal more sinister. As for Assad, with his troubled Middle Eastern background and memories, in Victim 2117 he must face not only his own past but also a genuinely horrifying brute named Ghaalib, who is masterminding a terrorist plot with all the same utter fanaticism displayed by the evildoers in the first Department Q book. Adler-Olsen’s twists and turns are complex, mostly logical, and generally fair to readers who are themselves trying to unravel the mysteries while Department Q explores them. His pacing is adept, and his characters are mostly sufficiently interesting to generate empathy – although his villains are more than a trifle one-dimensional (and, really, surpassingly vicious). There is nothing particularly urbane about the Department Q characters, nothing to place Carl directly in the distinguished line of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes. But there is plenty to show how closely this series parallels and expands upon the more-modern notions of Hammett, and of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) as well. Carl is certainly Danish, but he is recognizably an Everyman, or Every-Detective, for the 21st century.