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14 may 2013

It took me months to read Jussi Adler-Olsen's third Carl Mørck novel, Erlösung – not just because I was reading it in German, and my German is gradeschool level at best, but also because it runs to 582 pages in the German translation, and that's a lot of reading in any language.

"Erlösung" means "freeing," so it's a title that could apply to any detective novel where somebody is captured at some point, which is most detective novels. German Krimi translations tend to have such titles; the German titles of Stieg Larsson's novels (Verblendung, Verdammnis, Vergebung) are just as nondescript. (To make matters more complicated, the English version of Erlösung will appear later this month as A Conspiracy of Faith.)

The Danish title of Erlösung, however, is simply Flaskepost fra P: "Letter in a bottle from P___" And that's the inciting event of the story. An old, faded letter in a bottle, signed with the initial "P," washes up in Scotland, and since it's in Danish, it's forwarded to Carl Mørck's Department Q, the Copenhagen bureau of lost causes.

Department Q, now up to three-and-a-half members with the addition of part-time criminalist and cafeteria employee Tomas Laursen, has more important things on its plate, including some serial arsons; but the prospect of piecing together a decades-old cry for help is just their thing, and absorbs the first part of the novel. Meanwhile, we see the man who abducted P___ from his own perspective, getting ready to abduct again.

The back-and-forth among the kidnapper, his victims, his deceived wife, and the folks at Department Q is riveting stuff. Overall, the novel is somewhat padded out to 582 pages by a host of other material. Carl has problems with an ever-growing roster of domestic characters: lovers, family, his wounded colleague Hardy. Something's shady about sidekick Assad's domestic life, too. Secretary/detective Rose disappears and sends her identical – really too identical – twin sister Yrsa to decode the Flaskepost in her place. It's not that any of this completely wears out its welcome, but more that it distracts from a crackling, and increasingly suspenseful, mystery story.

Adler-Olsen, as in the first two Mørck novels, is drawn to situations where his heroes race against time to prevent murder – though as with any Krimi, there are already-committed murders aplenty to be solved along the way to the big rescue scene. Perhaps it's a Danish thing: the other bestselling Danish Krimi I've read recently is Kaaberbøl & Friis's Boy in the Suitcase, also about an abducted child and a race against an implacable kidnapper. But I need more data points before pronouncing this the Ur-theme of the recent Danish crime novel.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi. Erlösung. [Flaskepost fra P, 2009.] Translated by Hannes Thiess. München: DTV, 2011.

English title: A Conspiracy of Faith
French title: Le message dans la bouteille