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the keeper of lost causes

19 december 2011

The Keeper of Lost Causes struck me initially as just the latest portrayal of a depressed, middle-aged, straight-male Scandinavian detective with an intractable homelife and an impossible casefile. Seventy-five pages in, though, the novel took on a bizarrely lurid cast, so over-the-top that you find yourself wondering what could motivate such intensely aberrant behavior – and when you ask yourself that in the middle of a Scandinavian Krimi, you know you are on the far reaches of imaginable human conduct. But author Jussi Adler-Olsen goes on to develop much suspense and a good deal of humor in the course of making the extreme situations of The Keeper of Lost Causes dramatically plausible. Halfway through, I leaped onto the Internet to see what other novels by Adler-Olsen were available in English: none. But several are in German, so I think I've found some new items for my next-summer's European shopping list.

The protagonist of The Keeper of Lost Causes is Carl Mørck – fortysomething, separated from an irritating wife, plagued by an unruly stepson. And haunted by a moment of incapacity: not long before the novel opens, Mørck had lain stunned on the floor while villains killed one of his partners and disabled another. Granted, he'd just been shot in the head himself, but it was a flesh wound, and Mørck blames himself for the debacle. If only he'd gotten off his back and into a shootout!

The depressed Mørck is not fit for regular duty, so in a bureaucratic boondoggle his superiors make him head of Department Q, a new division that handles cold cases. (And yes, I know that all cases in Denmark are cold cases.) Aside from evoking Pythonesque echoes of Harry "Snapper" Organs of Q Division, Mørck's new unit is intrinsically absurd. It consists of himself and a Arab refugee janitor with the incredible name of Hafez el-Assad. Assad's responsibilities include making tea and mopping the floor; Mørck's include surfing the Web and solving Sudoku.

The top case in their file happens to be the disappearance, five years previously, of a rising star in the Danish parliament. In interleaved chapters, we learn what happened to that parliamentarian. As Mørck gradually becomes aware of her existence, she is suffering torments worthy of a grindhouse film. This is where the novel takes its Grand-Guignol turn, one that almost caused me to skid off the road, despite its louche appeal.

But you stay with it (or at least I did) because Mørck is such an engaging character. There's more than a little Montalbano about him: he is compelled to solve mysteries, keeps a couldn't-give-a-fuck façade to keep him from getting too wound up in their human side, but ultimately is deeply affected by the cause of bringing evil to justice. At the same time, everyone around him seems to be incompetent or crazy. In Assad, Mørck has an offbeat and mercurial sidekick who strikes just the right note. Assad is part Catarella (also from Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels), and part Dr. Watson, and part wholly original. The recent history of Danish representations of Muslims makes for a potentially fraught contrast for Adler-Olsen's representation of Assad. I don't know what Arab and Muslim readers might make of him. But Mørck is careful to respect Assad's religion, even while making fun of his Danish and his cookery.

The Keeper of Lost Causes might not be for every taste. It is irreverent, cynical, and brutal. It imagines kinds of torture, torture of a woman, so extreme as to make you wonder why they have to be expressed. At the same time, it mobilizes a highly likable cavalry in the service of coming to her rescue. It's an odd book, but extremely skillful and hugely, pulpishly entertaining.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi. The Keeper of Lost Causes. [Kvinden i buret, 2007.] [Translated by Lisa Hartford and titled Mercy, London 2011.] New York: Dutton [Penguin], 2011.

French title: Miséricorde
German title: Erbarmen