Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been many different kinds of police procedural series, so it’s not easy to develop an innovative approach to them. But it can be done. Some authors have found ways to adapt the police procedural and make their take on it distinctive. To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), the first in his ‘Department Q’ series.
Carl Mørck is a Copenhagen homicide detective who’s just getting back to work after being sidelined by a line-of-fire shooting incident. He’s dealing with more than his physical injuries though. During the shooting, one of his colleagues, Anker Høyer, was killed. Another, Hardy Henningsen, was left with paralysis. Mørck blames himself for what happened, convinced that if he’d drawn his gun at the right time, things would have been different. Still, not one to wallow (no, he is not a stereotypical drunken cop), he starts back to work.
It’s not long though before some real problems arise. Mørck has never been the easiest person to work with, and now that he’s coping with his recovery, matters have gotten even worse. Things get so bad that complaints are made to his boss Marcus Jacobsen. At first, Jacobsen wants to give Mørck a little more time. But he’s pressured into doing something about the matter.
Then a solution suggests itself. The Danish government and the press have been putting a lot of pressure on the police to solve certain crimes that have gone ‘cold.’ So in a political move, Jacobsen creates ‘Department Q,’ designed to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ He names Mørck to head the department. Department Q is of course just about politics, so it exists as not much more than a name. Mørck is given a desk in the basement of the police department’s building and set of case files. He isn’t even given any staff at first. But then he’s assigned Hafez al-Assad to be a sort of glorified janitor.
At first, the Department Q solution seems to work. Mørck is out of the way, the press and government are placated and the police budget hasn’t been overextended. But then everything changes. Assad takes a bit of an interest in the five-year-old disappearance of Merete Lynggaard, one of the cases that’s ended up on Mørck’s desk. His interest proves to be infectious, and Mørck goes into the case more deeply.
Merete Lynggaard was an up-and-coming politician who’d already begun to make a name for herself when she disappeared during a ferry trip with her brother Uffe. They quarreled, and it was always believed that Uffe pushed her overboard in a tragic accident. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to solve this case and find her. So they begin to re-investigate. They’d like to start with Uffe, but he is a very troubled young man who simply doesn’t communicate. So they have to look elsewhere to trace Merete’s last days and weeks in order to find out what really happened to her. There are several possibilities, too, since there were people in her personal and professional lives who might easily want to be rid of her. When Mørck and Assad get to the truth, they discover that this case has everything to do with the past.
This is a police procedural, so readers get a look at how Copenhagen cops do their jobs. There’s also quite an element of police politics. For instance, there are internal politics as Mørck is shunted aside and later, finds a way to get what he wants. In fact, there’s an interesting scene in which he uses his own political leverage (which no-one thought he would have) to negotiate with his boss and ensure he and his assistant get what they need to fully investigate the Lynggaard case. You can call it blackmail, or you can call it doing one’s job; either way it’s an interesting example of how police departments work ‘on the inside.’
Another important element in this novel is the relationship between Mørck and Assad. At first, Mørck takes little interest in his assistant. And Assad doesn’t have much respect for his new boss, who doesn’t seem to want to do anything. But gradually they come to respect and even depend on each other. It turns out that they complement one another too. Where Mørck is acerbic, Assad knows how to be diplomatic, and that gets all sorts of little things done that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. For his part, Mørck has the authority and history in the police department to insist on things that Assad wouldn’t be able to get by himself. And they are both good detectives.
In this first novel in the series, we learn more about Mørck than we do about Assad. Mørck is separated from his wife Vigga, but he doesn’t desperately miss her. His stepson Jesper lives with him, so he faces the inter-generational stress that a lot of people do who share their homes with teenagers. He is dealing with the trauma of the shooting, but he doesn’t wallow in it. He has a cynical way of thinking about people and life and a sometimes very sarcastic way of talking. But he is not without compassion, and there are some scenes where he shows a more human side.
For his part, Assad says very little about himself. He is from Syria, but doesn’t really explain why he’s in Denmark, nor much about his family. All he will say is that if he ever returned to Syria, he’d likely be killed. He’s smart and hard-working, and eager to learn policing. In the way he is treated, we also see some different Danish attitudes towards immigrants.
The character of Merete Lynggaard also plays an important role in the novel. This story is told partly from her point of view (in third person), so we learn quite a bit about her. Readers who are tired of the ‘helpless, hapless female victim’ stereotype will be pleased to learn that she is none of those things. She’s not a superhero and that’s made clear too. But I can say without spoiling the story that she refuses to be a victim.
Since the novel is told from two points of view, readers are privy to information that Mørck and Assad don’t have at first. Those who prefer to discover things as the sleuths do will notice this. So will those who prefer just one point of view and just one timeline. That said though, Adler-Olsen is clear about whose viewpoint is being shared, and when a given event is taking place.
The story is not a happy one, and finding out the truth doesn’t make everything all right again. But there is some wry wit woven into it. In this scene, for instance, Mørck is settling into his new office:
‘Here he could sit for hours and surf the Net to his heart’s content. No pesky rules about secure surfing and safeguarding the central servers; at least that was something. He looked around for an ashtray and tapped a cigarette out of the pack. ‘Smoking is extremely hazardous to you and those around you,’ it said on the label. He glanced around. The few termites that thrived down here could probably handle it. He lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. There was definitely a certain advantage to being head of his own department.’
That wit gives insight into police bureaucracy, hospital/medical bureaucracy, and the political system.
Mercy is the story of an unlikely pair of sleuths who re-open a case most people thought had thankfully gone away. It shows the sometimes permanent effects of trauma, and at the same time, uses wit to call attention to a system that sometimes doesn’t work the way it should. But what’s your view? Have you read Mercy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 5 January/Tuesday 6 January – Confessions – Kanae Minato
Monday 12 January/Tuesday 13 January – Just Another Angel – Mike Ripley
Monday 19 January/Tuesday 20 January – Cradle to Grave – Eleanor Kuhns