Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) is a police procedural from Denmark, dark “Nordic Noir” with an quirky sense of humor. It’s also the first in a series about “Department Q,” a new police unit based in Copenhagen formed to tackle high-profile, closed cases. Placed in charge of this new unit is Carl Mørck, a homicide detective still reeling from a disastrous case that cost him his team, a trauma that’s made him so unpleasant, nobody wants to work with him. With the formation Department Q, Mørck’s superiors see a perfect opportunity: they put him in charge of it, stick him in a basement office, and channel most of the funds earmarked for the new section into their budget. Mørck, who has enough trouble waking up in the morning, is happy to be buried and neglected. But when an enthusiastic, Syrian civilian aide named Assad joins his section, Mørck finally decides to start justifying his paycheck. He picks up the threads on a missing persons case: five years ago, an ambitious young politician named Merete Lynggaard disappeared on her way to Germany with her brother. It was assumed that she went overboard, but the case was never solved, and with the surprisingly resourceful Assad driving him, Mørck gradually, reluctantly unravels the case.
This book was a nice change of pace, a getaway from my usual SF and spy fiction stomping grounds. It took several chapters to acclimate to the peculiar rhythms of the translation, but eventually the voice captured me. Alas, Mørck is kind of a sexist prick, which made him difficult to get behind at first. But ultimately he’s an interesting sexist prick, snarky, shrewd, traumatized, and more fragile than he’ll admit. His unlikable qualities seem specific to his character, and don’t infect the other major players, specifically Assad, Mørck’s mysterious “assistant” (who in fact carries most of the caseload), and Merete, whose horrible predicament is described in flashback. Adler-Olsen weaves these plot threads slowly, methodically together to a satisfying and well earned climax. While sometimes the pace is slowed by the incredibly detailed casework, that careful detail is intricate and compelling. I could see Department Q making for a good Scandinavian crime series in the vein of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and suspect I’ll read further in the series.