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THE MARCO EFFECT
by Jussi Adler-Olsen and Martin Aitken, trans.
Dutton, September 2014
496 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0525954023


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Adler-Olsen likes to start off with a prologue, and happily, unlike far too many authors who supply this currently fashionable ornament, his are worth reading. This is especially true in the case of THE MARCO EFFECT, which begins with a vividly described and touching account of the last day in the life of one Louis Fon in a remote Baka (Pygmy) village in Cameroon. Fon is a Bantu, employed by a Danish project that is supposed to be assuring the continued existence of the Baka in the forest. But the project is being milked of its funds by unscrupulous parties and Fon is in their way. And thus he dies.

The current attention to the Ebola epidemic in several African nations has perhaps focussed attention on the links between what may have once seemed a distant continent and Europe, thanks to globalization. The foreword neatly sums up at least one of these links - as Louis Fon dies, he has just time to text a message that winds up in Denmark, though like the more primitive message in a bottle of the previous Q case, it is not interpreted nearly in time.

Next we shift to Denmark, to the Danish participants in the African fraud. There is René E. Eriksen, head of the Department for Development Assistance, Teis Snap, managing director of a bank in danger of going under, and William Stark, an accountant on the verge of uncovering Eriksen's malfeasance. Needless to say, Stark has not long to live himself.

Then we get to Marco of the title, a fifteen year old boy of unclear origins who is part of a kind of cult/clan headed by a charismatic American named Zola who is passing himself off as a Gypsy. He is, in fact, a homicidal variety of a Fagin, who has led his "family" from country to country, training the children as beggars and thieves. It is he who has the contract on William Stark.

Zola's authority is absolute, bolstered by a willingness to impose it by force, but he is unable to cow Marco, who wants only to be what he thinks of as "normal" - loved, educated, honestly employed. He is very bright and spends what spare time he has in the library learning what he can. But he is also street-smart, agile, and shrewd, in short, a version of the Artful Dodger, but one with conscience and a moral sense. And a good thing too, because he spends almost the entire novel on the run from an increasingly expanding force of trackers anxious to see him dead.

Adler-Olsen does not get around to bringing Department Q - Carl Mørck, his enigmatic assistants Assad (not his real name) and Rose - onto the scene until well into the book. When he does, we find that things, as usual, are not going well with Mørck. Changes are taking place at headquarters which threaten Department Q, people seem to be keeping things from him, his love life is on the rocks, and his health is not all that it should be. His former boss has unexpectedly retired, to be replaced by the revoltingly fit Lars Bjørn, and that means Carl is going to be saddled with Bjørn's relative Gordon, who combines incompetence, inexperience, and arrogance in roughly equal measure.

Once all the major players are on stage, the narrative unfolds in typical Adler-Olsen fashion, alternating between Department Q's investigations and the heart-stopping chase after Marco, who slips and slides his way through Copenhagen, often only yards ahead of the wide-spread jaws that seek to snap him up. Marco is a thoroughly engaging character, but his creator manages to avoid any sentimentality in his presentation, largely because his escapes occur not miraculously but rather through his hyper-awareness of danger and his street knowledge gained through dubious experience. But it is impossible to resist a lad against whom everyone's hand is turned.

Adler-Olsen's mordant wit and ironic stance are well in evidence here, but they do not deflect from the seriousness with which he takes several underlying themes. There is the relationship between Africa and Europe, between the old and the new kind of colonization. Once colonial disasters were not likely to affect Europeans in general; today a route has been opened up that brings the sorrows of the one continent to the doorsteps of the other. The man who employs Zola is an African ex-child soldier still known as Boy, who learned his deadly skills sleeping with his arms around a Kalashnikov in the service of a vast African woman called simply Mammy. After things calmed down in Congo, Mammy converted her militia into a band of killers-for-hire. When Boy proved particularly useful, a European paid Mammy a healthy sum for him and took him back to Denmark, where he continued his usefulness in a variety of ways. Both Boy and Marco experienced horrendous childhoods; both were exploited; both were trained as professional criminals, though Marco's training stopped short of murder. There is another child however - William Stark's deeply beloved step-daughter Tilde, who dazzles Marco with the alternative possibilities she embodies as one who, loved and nourished, has had a proper childhood,.

Admittedly the book is somewhat too long, but not because it is bulked up with extraneous subplots. Everything is here for a reason and in the end it all comes together in a conclusion that is both realistic and, if not altogether optimistic at least allows for some reason to hope.

In a recent interview in the Huffington Post the author remarks on his intentions for the series: "It's more than a series. From the very beginning, I intended to write a very long novel whose elongated plot uncovers the secrets of the main characters. I view each of the five novels as a "chapter" in an overarching story, where each one can also be read as a stand-alone novel. Once all the novels in the series are completed, the overall story will have been told." He goes on to say that there are just two more novels to come before the story is complete. It's a remark that fills me with both anticipation and sadness. Much as I want to know the whole story, I also do not want it all to end.

One peculiarity: Martin Aitken, who has translated most of the previous Department Q novels, is credited as translator here, and an excellent job he does. But Aitken is British and translated the earlier books into his native idiom. This time out, Steve Schein is credited as well on the title page as "translation consultant," which appears to mean that he gave the work a more American flavour, translating the translation, so to speak.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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