Monday, March 5, 2012

Jussi Adler-Olsen dials up the pressure in "The Keeper of Lost Causes"

 Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes is no pot boiler; it’s a solidly written pressure cooker. 
               Another in the slew of newly translated Scandinavian mysteries, this Danish police procedural features a mismatched crime-solving duo, the hardboiled, irritating Carl Morck and his charming assistant, Middle Eastern motley fool, Assad.  While Carl is abrasive as sand paper, Assad can be as pleasingly smooth as massage oil. Their interaction provides much needed comic relief to the building tension, long- term torture, and considerations of suicide the plot comprises.
               The prelude presents a glimpse of the main plot:  a caged woman who doesn’t know where she is or what she has done to get herself in the box she’s in.
The story then cuts to 2007 when Carl has been promoted to the basement. No one wants to work with the surly, depressed Danish detective so his boss, Marcus Jacobsen, creates a department just for him coinciding with the legislature’s newly allocated funds for working on cold cases --- a sum that far exceeds what Carl will use. It’s a no-lose situation:  It isolates Carl and the extra money from Department Q will spill over to Jacobsen allowing him to hire four new investigative teams (to replace Carl’s one former team).  Plus it gives Carl recovery time; he is suffering following an assault that left one of his partners dead, another paralyzed and him traumatized with  survivor’s guilt. The assault occurred as part of an investigation of a murder by nail gun, another case that remains unsolved.
Carl defiantly basks in his solitude, passing the time lazing away, playing Spider Solitaire, solving Sudoku puzzles and counting, but not opening, case files.  But when he gets wind of the way the funding works, he can’t resist a counter move. He demands a car, and an assistant. They assign him Assad and the fun begins. Carl has to find something for Assad to do. Assad proves more than the tidy janitor, careening chauffeur, strong coffee maker, cheerful gopher and secretary charmer that he first appears to be.  He wheedles Carl back to work.
Almost haphazardly Department Q settles on the case of Merete Lynggaard, a beautiful, mysterious former member of parliament, who disappeared while travelling on a ferry five years ago.  She was with her disabled brother Uffe, who has lasting brain injuries from a family car accident. Merete, is believed to have drowned. Perhaps she was pushed or jumped from the ferry. Her body was never found. The reader, of course knows otherwise; she is the woman in the cage.
At first the cold case seems impossible to crack; old leads go nowhere. Slowly, slyly, Assad turns up a few promising threads and Carl engages. Tension builds. Merete fights her captivity with all she’s got left –  her will to live for Uffe. Carl  visits Uffe,  interviews  his former caretaker, Merete’s former secretaries,  even a former wannabe boyfriend.  Carl uncovers a botched initial investigation and follows his instincts. Assad, like a magician  pulling a rabbit out of a hat, finds a long lost briefcase seemingly out of thin air.  Back at the cage, the torturer cranks up the pressure.
Will Carl and Assad find Merete in time to save her?
While the story cuts back and forth from the cage to the crime solvers, two subplots also emerge with  parallel pressure, suicide and survivor issues of the main plot. The first is the crime that made Carl a basket case at the book’s beginning.  Carl feels compelled to visit his paralyzed partner, Hardy Hennigsen in the rehabilitation hospital and do what he can for him.  In addition, the nail gun case has developments reinforcing his trauma.  While Merete may feel pressure from without while imprisoned in a cage, Carl feels parallel pressure from within his ribcage; he suffers panic attacks.
Subplot number two involves the murder that the teams upstairs are working on with sporadic small successes due to either casual comments tossed them by Carl or outright consultation with him. They can’t work with him and they don’t work without him. The case, involving a murdered bicyclist and a witness to the murder, also includes themes of suicide, sacrifice/responsibility for others and pressure.
It’s the interplay of the characters and themes more than red herrings or twists of plot that make this mystery interesting.  Curiously, a few characters are introduced including a live-in stepson and an estranged wife and hardly used and some crimes go unsolved. Perhaps  these relationships and crimes will be further explored in future books.
Some, like me, may put together the reason for the kidnapping long before the kidnapper is cornered by Carl and Assad. And even as the plot simmers, the pressure cranks and the case heats up, the reader has a pretty good guess as to the inevitable end, by virtue of structure alone.
That structure, seesawing back and forth between the cage and the crime solvers, lends itself to easy transformation into a screenplay.  Perhaps Jussi Adler-Olsen had such a transformation in mind as he wrote.  But if that screenplay were to become a movie, the interaction of crime solvers would likely be critical to its success – just as it is in the book.   While the caged  woman and her torturer provide terror, Carl and Assad are a comedy act and an investigative team to be reckoned with.


  1. It sounds terrifying! You write such comprehensive reviews!

  2. Thanks. I hope that's a good thing. I'm not sure that it is. I worked as a journalist and know short is good, often better, but I have a hard time doing that. I think in the blogosphere, shorter still is better.