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by Jussi Adler-Olsen and Tiina Nunnally, trans
Dutton, August 2011
464 pages
ISBN: 0525952489

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The phenomenal success of the Tattooed Girl has set publishers on the hunt for more Scandinavian crime writers who can be compared to the inestimable Stieg Larsson. On the whole, this is a good thing, in the sense that while very often the writers in question have little in common with the late Swede, they still have a lot to offer and now they no longer must languish untranslated and inaccessible to the unilingual reader.

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is a case in point. Jussi Adler-Olsen is admittedly Danish, not Swedish, and all things considered, his book is not very like Larsson's. But it does have elements in common with that series, most notably a strong female protagonist and a certain over-the-top quality which may or may not appeal to different readers.

LOST CAUSES combines two parallel narratives. In one, homicide detective Carl Mørck of the Copenhagen Police has recently returned from a medical leave following his near-fatal shooting in an incident that left one of his two partners dead and another paralysed and now suicidal. Though Mørck bears the physical scars of the assault, it is the psychological ones that really ache. Though he is widely admired in the police service, no one can stand working with him any longer - he's testy, undependable, and argumentative. They can't fire him, so they promote him to head a new department, "Q," and set him and his staff, a Muslim immigrant and janitor (called Hafez El-Assad, though this is not his real name), to work on a teetering pile of cold case files.

The first of these to engage Mørck is that of a young Social Democratic member of parliament, Merete Lynggaard, who disappeared from a ferry boat some five years ago, leaving behind her brain-damaged younger brother. Hers is the second narrative, and as it immediately transpires, she is far from dead. She is being held captive by persons unknown, for reasons that are initially unclear. Her struggles to retain her sanity and muster the will to resist make up the alternative story line.

I have at this point to confess to a couple of biases. I am growing very weary of what appears to be the standard-issue alienated copper at odds with the bureaucracy. Though Mørck, who by his own admission is the best detective in Copenhagen, can bend the suits to his will, he cannot deal with his ex-wife (of course, he is divorced) or with his surly stepson who is living with and off him. And there is the female captivity narrative, always problematic, which this time at least emphasizes Merete's will to survive and refusal to surrender. But the odds against her are improbably long, as is her confinement and the physical circumstances she is tasked to resist.

On the other hand, Assad, Mørck's blue-gloved janitor, chauffeur, and technical assistant, is a brilliant invention. At the moment he is inexplicable but I suspect that more will be revealed as the series progresses. Particularly curious is his assumed name, that of the notorious former Syrian dictator, infamous for a strikingly brutal massacre of civilians. I do look forward to following this Assad's career in Copenhagen if the three further books in the series to date appear in translation.

Tiina Nunnalley's translation is readable, though I sometimes had a little trouble deciding if bits were really meant to be funny. Given the fact that the author has written two books about Groucho Marx, I presume they were. Readers who wish Larsson had lived to produce Millennia numbers IV and V should certainly take a look at Adler-Olsen. LOST CAUSES is a different sort of book, but one that offers some of the same satisfactions.

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES was published in the UK as MERCY, to my mind an inexplicable title choice. The original Danish title, Kvinden i buret translates as THE WOMAN IN THE CAGE.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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