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by Jussi Adler-Olsen and Martin Aitken, trans.
Plume, December 2013
528 pages
ISBN: 0142180815

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

All in all, Danish police detective Carl Mørck is not feeling as well as he might. He is still recovering from the trauma of a police operation that left him slightly wounded but with one colleague dead and another a quadriplegic. As is common in circumstances such as these, Mørck is suffering from survivor guilt, though being Mørck, he isn't quick to admit it. Still, he's installed the invalid, Hardy, in his front room to compensate, he feels, for still being in one piece and able to return to work. But even at the office, things have changed. Health and Safety want to turf him out of his basement kingdom due to suspected asbestos contamination, and his two assistants are acting oddly. Assad seems to have more than his usual number of secrets to keep and Rose has taken off unexpectedly, to return whenever.

Though the opening pages of A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH focus on these members of Department Q, which specializes in odd crime that no one else really wants to touch, the bulk of the book concerns itself with the unfolding of a complicated and cold-blooded series of kidnappings for ransom dating back at least a decade. These come initially to Department Q's attention when the Scottish police forward a message written in blood and contained in a bottle that had been sitting on a windowsill in a police station for years. It has deteriorated considerably in that time, but it seems both authentic and written in Danish. It's heading is unequivocal: HELP! it pleads.

Thanks to that ever-helpful device, the prologue, the reader knows pretty much who wrote the message and why, but it takes considerable detective work on the part of Mørck and his team to come up with that information. In the meantime, another kidnapping is under way and much of the narrative is devoted to the personality of the criminal, who is very clever as well as wholly lacking in empathy, and to the efforts of his victims to defeat him. There is a subplot concerning arson that seemed extraneous and a bit hard to defend in a book that runs to more that five hundred pages. On the whole, however, Adler-Olsen manages to maintain the tension right to the end and provides a spectacularly desperate drive at 150km that was altogether nail-biting. If the suspense overshadows Mørck's habitual irony, Assad's eccentric brilliance, and Rose's resourcefulness, it also makes this a difficult book to put down.

For reasons that are altogether unclear to me, publishers and reviewers both find it difficult to talk about Adler-Olsen without mentioning Stieg Larsson. It doesn't seem to matter that one is Danish, the other Swedish, or that they write quite different kinds of crime fiction. Admittedly, they both write long, but so do half the best-selling crime writers from the United States. What they do have in common, however, is a core conviction that crime fiction is an appropriate place for social commentary. For reasons best known to publishers, this book, titled originally in Danish Flaskepost fra P (literally, Bottle Letter from P...) was released in Britain as REDEMPTION. The present US title strikes me as the most useful, because beyond all the suspense, Adler-Olsen clearly has a complex set of ideas concerning religion, community, and family that give the entire work a depth that only gradually emerges. Adler-Olsen's view of the small and closed religious sects that are central to the narrative is nuanced and compassionate, as he observes not only what makes the believers vulnerable but what also gives them strength.

A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH provides a heady mixture of suspense, humour, eccentricity, and reflection enough to satisfy a broad range of readers, and Martin Aitken's translation into British idiom is flexible and transparent.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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