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…