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Appropriately, this ninth in the Department Q series begins with a prologue set about thirty years before the action of the novel. Department Q, after all, deals in cold cases, preferably those that are weird, strange, and often not recognized as crimes at all. This opening scene is no crime, however; it describes a horrifying natural disaster. Six persons lie dead in a Copenhagen park, all struck by lightning. A seventh member of the group that had huddled together in the storm survives, though it is unclear why. When she regains consciousness, she appears vaguely pleased that her companions are all dead and utters this odd response: "You know what? If I can survive this, then with God's help I can survive anything."
Chapter One also flashes back, this time to an explosion in an auto repair shop that carried off a small child in addition to various employees of the garage. This too does not appear a crime of any sort, except possibly of negligence. There was one oddity that could not be explained - there was a small pile of salt next to the garage fence, and it was table salt, not road salt. This case bothered Marcus Jacobsen, now Chief of Homicide, so much that he kept a copy of the report in his desk for twenty years. From these beginnings, Adler-Olsen manages to spin a complex plot with his usual extraordinary ability.
When the mother of the child who died in the explosion finally kills herself on her sixtieth birthday, Marcus is prompted to drop the case on Carl's desk to see if more can be uncovered. And in the course of the sort of investigation, a mix of meticulous attention to detail and a willingness to entertain the bizarre that is Department Q's speciality, these early events are gradually linked to later deaths, all only partially explained and some written off as not the result of crime.
As the team works its way through past deaths associated with piles of salt they recognize an emerging pattern - these deaths were separated by a similar and regular interval of time. An examination of the actual dates reveals that they all refer to the birth dates of historically evil dictators - Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceauşescu and others like them are all represented. Now the team is convinced that they have a serial killer and possibly a group of them on their hands.
They are right - it is a group, an all-female group committed to coming down hard on what they view as the failures of society. They take vigorous exception to everything that violates their standards of acceptable social behaviour and punish the perpetrators physically. As they say "You could call it taking the law into your own hands, but you could also call it due diligence because it makes the world a little better every time." Such a group inevitably attracts a few who see in it a licence to take revenge on those who offend. Even the meeker among them find justification finally in direct action. One triumphantly recounts how she broke six umbrellas on one afternoon by thrusting them into the bicycle wheels of riders who were ignoring pedestrians. The bikers were injured. Few pedestrians who have had close calls with bike riders will fail to sympathize with the action, but Adler-Olsen manages cleverly to remind us that this sort of vigilante behaviour can have awful consequences.
As it becomes clear that the murder victims who met their ends on the birthdays of tyrants were certainly unworthy citizens, their misdeeds are for the most part pallid in comparison to what the birthday boys did.
The validation of vigilante justice is a trope of both popular culture and crime fiction. One of the women in the group decorates her apartment with large photos of action heroes and Adler-Olsen makes it clear that it is not their sexual attractiveness that wins each a place on her walls, but their status as gods of revenge.
When it becomes clear that yet another oppressor's birthday is coming up on Boxing Day, Carl and his team try their very hardest to save the chosen victim's life, regardless of whether they approve of how he made his money and spent his days. And the author convinces the reader that they are correct in trying to do so. It is a suspenseful ending to a complex novel that ends with an unexpected (but fully prepared) cliff-hanger.
THE SHADOW MURDERS is the ninth in a series which the author has said will conclude with number ten. While I will certainly be sorry to see Department Q retire, I didn't need a cliff-hanger to convince me to anxiously await its final appearance. I wouldn't miss it for the world.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2022
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