‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Mercy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 512 pages; 2011. Translated from the Danish by Lisa Hartford. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As far as Scandinavian crime fiction is concerned, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy beats the pants off Steig Larsson. This is the best crime novel I’ve read in years.

First published in Danish as Kvinden i Buret (The Woman in the Cage) in 2008, the book has won a raft of awards, including the Glass Key Award 2010 for Best Nordic Crime Thriller, and remained on the bestseller list in the author’s native Denmark for more than a year.

I’m not surprised. This is an intelligent, well plotted story with a cast of believable characters, and everything about it screams page-turner. I suspect that before long Mercy is the book that everyone is going to be reading, and it’s going to turn the author into a massive star in whichever territory it is published. And rightly so, I might add.

Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English). Department Q is the name of a newly created division within the Danish police force that is designed to look at “special cases”, specifically those that have run cold and remain unsolved.

The man to head up the division is homicide detective Carl Mørk. Carl is a tricky character, excellent at his job but not well liked by his colleagues because he is a bit of a maverick and tends to show up their inadequacies. When he returns from sick leave (he took a bullet in the head while investigating a crime scene), he is kicked downstairs, so to speak, and given an armful of files and an assistant, the mysterious but oh-so capable Syrian immigrant Assad, to help him.

Initially, Carl doesn’t seem much interested in working on these dead-end cases, preferring to kill time surfing the internet or playing solitaire on his computer. But when Assad digs out files relating to a young and beautiful politician, Merete Lynggaard, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier, he is embarrassed into changing his ways.

What Carl doesn’t know is that Merete is still alive. She is being held captive in a steel chamber somewhere in the Danish countryside. She does not know her captors, nor does she understand the purpose of her confinement. But what becomes clear is that the clock is ticking and if she fails to escape death is imminent.

These two narratives — Merete’s predicament and Carl’s investigation — are interleaved in fast-paced chapters which heighten the tension the further into the story you go. Will Carl find all the clues to save Merete’s life? Will Merete hang on long enough to be found by Carl?

Aside from the terrific momentum of the story — and the satisfying climax — what makes Mercy such a great read is its multi-layered narrative, namely a subsidiary murder investigation; the aftermath of Carl’s shooting incident which left one colleague dead and another paralysed; and Merete’s secret history looking after her mentally disabled younger brother. Coupled with superb characterisation and an authentic insight into workplace politics and bureaucracy, not only in the police service but the Danish parliament, too, is it any wonder Mercy kept me gripped for two whole days?

I especially appreciated the fact that even though the victim is female, and imprisoned against her will, she is not subject to gratuitous violence or sexual abuse. Adler-Olsen has made her into a feisty, determined and strong character who refuses to succumb to the twisted mindset of her cruel captor. If only more crime writers would avoid the obvious cliches in this way!

Carl is also an intriguing character, occasionally sexist and egotistical, but with a touching vulnerability that makes him strangely likeable. And his back story, a divorcee bringing up his step-son, is an unconventional one that Adler-Olsen is sure to thrash out more fully in the novels to come…

Mercy is a police procedural come pyschological thriller of the finest order. I can’t wait for the next in the series to be translated…

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27 thoughts on “‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

  1. I have this book winging its way to me right now courtesy of Amazon Vine and I cannot wait to get it now!!! That is praise indeed, Kim, and the book sounds right up my street. Great review, thanks 🙂

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  2. I have seen this book EVERYWHERE, ok well when I have managed to go to shops I have seen it lots. Its intrigued me from the cover but I did think ‘oh another scandi crime’. Sounds like this is well worth a read, I like teh cold case element of it (I love Waking The Dead whcih has sadly now finished on the BBC) so this is one I should look out for.

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  3. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but you’ve certainly grabbed my attention with that review. It wouldn’t be that difficult for a book to knock the pants off Steig Larsson, as I thought his books were a bit average, but I am always on the look out for a good thriller and so will add this to my wishlist. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

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  4. I have read my fair share of Scandi crime, and this one is certainly a stand out. I am itching to read the next one but my contact at Penguin says it wont be out until next March! I am sure you will enjoy Mercy, Boof.

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  5. I only read the first Larsson while on holiday in 2008. I remember enjoying it at the time but it was not a memorable story — I didnt bother reviewing it or reading the rest in the trilogy.

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  6. I think you would like this one, Simon, as it is not just a crime novel – it is a police procedural AND a pyschological thriller, so packs quite a punch!

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  7. Ok, you have completely convinced me that I must read this book. I am actually one of those rare specimens who didn’t care much for Larsson’s books (or rather, book, since I only read the first one and wasn’t much impressed by it), so the fact that you say this is so much better definitely piques my interest. Also, is it wrong that I am drawn to the book because it features something called “Department Q”? That just sounds so cool!

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  8. Agreed on all counts. In my Euro Crime review, much as I hate comparing authors to other authors, I wrote that this author seems to me the most like Sjowall and Wahloo since S and W. I loved this book (though the crime plot was obvious to me), especially that the most appealing, nicest character in it was the kidnapee, who was no victim at all as you write, but a very empowered and empowering woman. Great stuff and I cannot wait till the next either!

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  9. I am always happy when people discover one of our worth-while crime writers. I read the third in the seties recently, and I can´t make up my mind which of the three is best.

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  10. If you can’t work out which of the three is best, then it sounds like the quality of the first one has been maintained across the series.

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  11. I liked the first Larsson but not enough to remember anything about it or bother with the rest in the series, but, as you say, that puts us in the minority!
    Funnily enough, I didn’t particularly like the name of the department in Mercy, it sounded a bit fake to me, but glad to hear you think it’s cool. LOL!

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  12. Thanks, Kim – I did not want to link to my review as I thought it might be against blog etiquette (BSP) – I know some people don’t like it, so thanks very much for the link.

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  13. I agree this is a clever book and as you say, “fast-paced”. I found it not a particularly comfortable read, mainly because Merete’s predicament was almost unbearably awful. Having become quite a fan of Scandinavian fiction in recent months I think on the whole I prefer the slightly more reflective writers, with Karin Alvtegen and Jo Nesbo being my favourites.

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  14. I’m a fan of Alvtegen, too, but not read any Jo Nesbo.
    I quite like psychological thrillers, especially along the lines of Nicci French. They’re not exactly high-brow literature, but I value them for the entertainment factor. I also like police procedurals, where the cops have to hunt out the clues and drag you along with them. So I expect Mercy really appealed to me because it brought both of those elements together.

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  15. Good to see your thoughts Kim and comments that indicate this is not simply hype and a jumping on the Scandi-bandwagon but a damn good novel. I will soon be free to read from choice again and I am looking forward to this one. I’ve had a little skim of the first few pages and found I loved the cover texture. I hope it proves to be as much a pleasure to read as it is to hold. I shall no more lest I be considered a bit of a per*ert.

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  16. Oh yes, the texture of this cover is quite lovely, isn’t it? It’s got a kind of smooth matt feel to it. The contents are equally devine, Rhian! 😉

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  17. Have just been directed to this brilliant review by crimeficreader and Mercy sounds like my kind of novel. Although I won’t be able to experience the texture of the cover (disadvantage of kindle) I found the review too irresistable and have downloaded Mercy already (advantage of kindle). Thank you and I look forward to devouring this book 🙂

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  18. Hi Jan, this is why I am very glad my Kindle does not like talking to our Apple router. It is such a palavar trying to buy books wirelessly that I only do it when I have the patience to bypass the system. Of course, I could buy them online and then transfer them by USB cable, but I could also walk to a shop and buy a novel the old fashioned way! 😉
    Anyway, pleased to hear crimeficreader pointed you this way and that you liked what you saw. Only hope you like the book too… I always worry about building people’s expectations when I rave about something and give it five-stars! Do come back and let me know how you got on with it, good or bad.

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  19. I so agree with you about this book surpassing The Girl Who Whatever. 🙂 Why that series took off as it did is beyond me; this novel by Adler-Olsen was far more satisfying.
    Although, I am intrigued why the three Scandinavian authors I’ve read (Larson, Olsen and Nesbo) have all incorporated horrific tortures of their female characters.
    Bellezza of

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  20. Thanks for your comment and nice to hear that you liked this more than you know who! 😉
    But it’s not just the Scandinavians that treat female characters in this way, I think it’s common throughout the genre, particularly those that have a pyschological/thriller element to them. For torture-free reading of the Scandi variety, try Theorin, Indriðason or Alvtegen, all of whom are reviewed on this blog.

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  21. Kim, based on your recommendation, I borrowed the book and read it in one weekend, I couldn’t put it down. Although I found hard to believe that a human being could survive, without falling insane, such torturous conditions, for five years. Terrible. I loved Assad character! I will certainly read Adler-Olsen, whatever is translated in English but I might switch my preferences toward torture-free reading (I’ll check your reviews of the mentioned authors.)
    Thank you,
    Doina

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  22. You did, indeed!
    I thought of you the other day – there was a terrific one-hour documentary on BBC4 on Italian noir crime fiction. It is part of the Time Shift series, so might be worth hunting out on DVD if it ever becomes available. There was another on Scandinavian crime last night, which I will watch on iPlayer later in the week.

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  23. Kim, have you read more of the Department Q series? I’m currently reading #2, The Absent One, not as good as Mercy but still very good.

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