Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
trans. by Tiina Nunnally

Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck has just returned from sick leave. He's physically recovered from the bullet wound he received while investigating his last case, but not emotionally. One of his partners is dead, the other is stuck in the Hornbaek Clinic for Spinal Cord Injuries, and it's his fault (or near enough).
Mørck's a bit perplexed when he's made head of the newly formed Department Q on his first day back. Department Q (staff: 1) is located at the Copenhagen police headquarters (in the basement) and tasked with investigating cold cases of national interest. It's a cake job for Mørck. He can slack off all he wants because no one really expects him to solve any of the cases he's assigned.
When Mørck discovers the Copenhagen homicide has co-opted the 90% of the 8 million kroner earmarked for Department Q, Mørck successfully lobbies for a departmental vehicle and an assistant. When his assistant (a pleasant, but enigmatic Syrian political refugee) arrives for work, Mørck realizes that he hadn't thought that request through. Now that he has an assistant, he's accountable to another.
Mørck chooses his first case at random. It is the mysterious disappearance of a MP and Vice-chairperson of the Social Democrat party, Merete Lynggaard, five years before.

After the success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, I suspect that publishers will be keeping Americans in Nordic crime novels for the foreseeable future. No complaints from the corner, especially if we keep being feed prize-winning works of the caliber of The Keeper of Lost Causes.

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first in Adler-Olsen's Department Q series. The novel is an opener that doesn't get too bogged down in setting the stage for the entire series.

Mørck is a flawed, but sympathetic protagonist. He's understandably morose at the beginning of the novel, but working on the case invigorates him. One of the things I like about him is while nearly all of the others who work in the police headquarters find him difficult and unlikeable, we as readers get to see the kindness of which he's capable. Mørck's assistant, Assad, is a bit of a mystery himself. As the novel progresses, both Mørck and the reader discover that Assad has many hidden talents.

As much as I enjoy the CSI television programs, they tend to lack authenticity. I was quite pleased when reading The Keeper of Lost Causes the the detectives were described as "already wearing the white disposable coveralls, masks, gloves and hairnets that procedures prescribed" (23) when they begin to process a crime scene. That gave me faith that Adler-Olsen was going to provide me with a more accurate picture of this kind of police work.

As for Department Q's first case. Readers learn fairly early on that Lynggaard did not commit suicide (as was held when the case was first investigated). The narrative focus switches between Mørck and Lynggaard throughout (near the climax, the villains get their chance in the spotlight as well). At the beginning of The Keeper of Lost Causes, the two timelines are separated by five years, while at the end they become parallel before they intersect.

The mystery had depth. Readers don't figure out whodunnit before the other characters do and there's no out-of-left-field deduction by the investigators. The pacing is quite good (The Keeper of Lost Causes is nearly 500 pages long, but those pages fly by). It would have been very easy to get bogged down in Lynggaard's chapters, but Adler-Olsen manages them with aplomb.

A note on the title -
While I love the novel's American title1 and find it very compelling, it's interesting to note that the original Danish title translates as The Woman in the Cage. The original title emphasizes the case where the title we (Americans) encounter emphasizes Mørck and Department Q itself.

The Keeper of Lost Causes comes out on Tuesday (August 23, 2011). The second and third books2 in the Department Q series have already been published in the original Danish so hopefully we'll have access to English translations soon. I know I'm eager to get my hands the next installment.
  1. Apparently, this book is published under the title Mercy in the UK.
  2. Their Danish titles translate as The Pheasant Killers and Message in a Bottle.
disclosure: I received a review copy of The Keeper of Lost Causesfrom Penguin via NetGalley.


  1. Oh yes, I'm seeing a lot of Nordic crime thrillers in the bookshops lately! :P

  2. I'm so happy that this is a series, I was hoping when I ended the last page that we'd be seeing more Dept Q, Morck and Assad. It is interesting the change in titles. I can understand The Woman in the Cage for sure, but I really like The Keeper of Lost Causes too, maybe they wanted to emphasize to American readers that it was going to be a series, instead of a stand-a-lone - since Danish readers already know this, but this is the first we've heard of Adler-Olsen?

    Great review!


  3. I do love the American title. I find it so very compelling. The Danish title is fine and appropriate, but it does give more away about the mystery. Either way, I'm definitely eager to read more of the series.