Department Q back to solve another cold case


By Jussi Adler-Olsen

Dutton, $26.95

Carl Mørck is the quintessential melancholy Dane. He’s still trying to work out a settlement with his estranged wife so they can get divorced. He’s stuck in the basement of the Copenhagen Police Department running the cold case unit, Department Q, because no one really wants to work with him. He’s too unlikable. He is also brusque and judgmental. He can afford to be. He’s the best detective on the force, and if he hadn’t suffered mental problems after being injured in an ambush that left one partner dead and another a quadriplegic, he might be considered a rising star in the department.

His personal life is too complicated to bring him any joy. His grown son lives with him — sometimes — and sometimes he lives with his artist mother who goes through men like a kid going through a bag of lollipops. The son, Jesper, is something of a deadbeat. He drinks his juice straight from the carton. “The day Jesper would discover how to pour the stuff into a glass was something not even Nostradamus would hazard,” Carl wryly observes. His help at work is equally exasperating to him. Rose, the secretary, is not so sweet as her name would suggest but certainly as thorny. His right hand man is a Muslim immigrant named Assad who favors sweet tea and prayer mats at work. Assad is almost as mysterious as Carl is irascible and displays surprising talents when they are working a case. Which is always. They specialize in very cold cases that seem impossible to solve. These cases always involve murder and other crimes, and when Carl figures them out, the solution always reveals the guilty party in other cases as well.

This time Adler-Olsen has given his Nordic Holmes the coldest of cold cases: a bottle containing a message written in blood has been found — in Scotland. In 2002. First the bottle gets stuck in a rural police precinct for a while when the officer who received it from a fisherman gets distracted then dies.

“And so the bottle remained undisturbed in the sunny corner of the windowsill for a very long time indeed. No one paid it any heed, and no one worried that the paper it contained might be damaged by the sunlight and the condensation that with time appeared on the inside of the glass.”

Eventually the bottle and its message somehow make it to Scotland Yard where forensics investigators figure out that the note is written in Danish and that it’s some sort of cry for help. So it’s sent to Denmark, to Department Q.

With old degraded DNA, a faint, almost indecipherable text and little if anything else to go on, Carl and his team deduct that the note was written by a kidnapped child and thrown into the sea somewhere along the coast of Denmark. The investigators follow the note’s faint clues and discover a killer. The monster who held the note writer is a man whose mode of operation is to kidnap two children from families who are members of secretive religious sects, then demand a huge ransom. The killer murders one of the children as a warning to the parents not to try to contact authorities because he can kill the other child any time he wants. He lets the other child go to deliver his message to the parents. The parents are always too terrified of losing another child to go to police. The killer has made this his career and lives well with a home, wife and child of his own. No one can identify him.

Adler-Olsen is a master at creating villains with lavish backstory, but his secondary characters are believable and engaging as well: the killer’s neglected wife, the women the killer seduces to aid his plans, the brave children who face death, the members of the Copenhagen Police Department who interact with Department Q. This time around, Adler-Olsen creates victims who fight back, and it’s an important message. Don’t accept fate, struggle against all odds. As always, Adler-Olsen’s driving plot sweeps readers along and doesn’t allow time for them to ponder leaps of intuition and coincidences that are necessary in any detective story.

In the wake of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s incredible success with his Millennium Trilogy, Scandinavian crime writers flooded U.S. publishers with manuscripts. Dutton chose to publish only Adler-Olsen, first publishing The Keeper of Lost Causes (2011). There was no sophomore slump for Adler-Olsen, The Absent One (2012), his second novel published in the U.S., was a riveting thriller and was a fixture on various best-seller lists. A Conspiracy of Faith will be a best-seller in the U.S. too.

There are actually five books in the Department Q series that have so far been published internationally, so two more await English translations. Adler-Olsen’s American fans can rest assured that there is more to come from Carl Mørck.