Jussi Adler-Olsen’s second Department Q novel is The Absent One (2008), and if anything it’s even darker than The Keeper of Lost Causes, so noir you can barely see the page through all the black-hearted evil. Nestled in the dingy basement of Copenhagen police headquarters is Department Q, the cold cases section run by detective Carl Mørck and his erstwhile Syrian assistant Assad. Buoyed by the success of their first major case, they tackle a new assignment: investigating a twenty-year old double murder. There’s just one problem: someone already confessed, and is serving time for the crime. Mørck, Assad, and new staff member Rose Knudsen are already elbow-deep in the case before strings start getting pulled to shut them down. Why? Because the murder may be the key to unraveling a two-decade crime spree, and the perpetrators are high-society sociopaths whose ruthless business instincts are only matched by their violent impulses. The key to the case seems to be the mysterious Kirsten-Marie Lassen, a former member of the gang, but can Mørck locate her before the gang does?
The Absent One unfolds like the second season of a gritty police procedural, and the detailed police work and darkly funny office dynamics still carry the day. The one-percenter gang of horrible psychopaths makes for a slow-starting, but ultimately compelling counterpoint to the small team of intrepid heroes on their tail. Unfortunately, Mørck’s unlikeable, sexist behavior is somewhat more pronounced here – drawn out by the arrival of Rose, a wonky, rather tough-to-read character who seems introduced to press his buttons. And whereas the Merete Lyngaard track in The Keeper of Lost Causes gave us a victim to root for, The Absent One’s non-Mørck scenes delve into the heads of some truly sick individuals. So much so, in fact, that the entire book is practically a trigger warning: domestic abuse, rape, and animal cruelty figure prominently, especially in the backstory. I did get the vague sense that beneath Mørck’s prickly, traumatized shell he’s not entirely the misogynist curmudgeon he presents to be. His remorse over his former partner’s injury, and his soft-spot for Assad (who is one of the main reasons I came back for book two), suggest as much. But the degree to which this novel revels in such horrid subject matter did put me off a little, even as I compulsively pursued the mystery and rooted for the heroes. A step down from the first book, then, with problematic aspects and an ending that may have gone way too far over the top; but damn it, the scenario still kind of has its hooks in, and the Mørck-Assad partnership is still pretty riveting.