Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1)
by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Translated by Lisa Hartford)
How does one get rid of a sullen, stubborn, rude, and depressed employee? It's a bit trickier when said employee, Carl Morck, is a decorated detective recovering from a firefight that left one team member dead and the other a quadriplegic. The Copenhagen police chief, however, has the perfect solution: to "promote" Morck to the position of head of Department Q, a newly created sector tasked with resurrecting "important" unsolved cases. In reality, of course, Morck is now the head of a department of one, and he's been stashed in the basement with a stack of cold cases while the chief can redistribute the generous budget allocated for the new "department." Morck is initially sullenly cooperative; after the tragedy that struck his team, all he wants to do is sit and play spider solitaire all day. However, his new handyman and wannabe-assistant, Assad, ends up galvanizing him into action to unravel the circumstances behind the mysterious disappearance of politician Merete Lynggaard.
I have to admit that this book just didn't do it for me. I think there were a variety of factors, starting with my absolute inability to like the main character, Carl Morck. Protagonists of noir tend to have rather difficult personalities, but their assholery is usually counterbalanced by sympathy-inducing tragic pasts. Morck certainly has the tragedy in spades: he's still suffering from survivor's guilt as the only member of his team to walk out of an ambush alive, his family has been shattered, he seems to be suffering from the early symptoms of heart disease, his colleagues appear to hate him, and he appears to be utterly devoid of friends. Despite this laundry list of woe, I'm completely unable to sympathise with Morck. Maybe it's just because, as Morck would say, I'm an utter "ice bitch", I never felt close to him as a character, and the writing never drew me in enough to tug any heartstrings. Every time I felt the stirrings of sympathy, I'd be confronted with his torpor or his tendency to treat every other character with contempt and derision, and my fellow-feeling would collapse into dislike.
Most grating, for me, was his treatment of women. Noir is not particularly kind to women: they're usually viewed as sex objects first and humans later--if ever--and their role tends to be to react to, facilitate, or place roadblocks in the way of the action-oriented male characters. However, I think Adler-Olsen goes a step farther. (Honestly, I started wondering about halfway through if the author hated all women, or if he was just venting his spleen against a select few.) Morck evaluates every woman first by their physical appearance. Any woman who fails this test is dismissed as dried-up, jealous, bitter, and/or worthless. If the woman satisfies Morck's definition, he makes a pass at her, independent of whether or not she is married. Women are supposed to accept sexual advances with grace and mutual interest, independent of any supposed working relationships or previous attachments. For example, one of the female secretaries is beautiful and married, but Morck propositions her and liberally slathers his conversations in sexual innuendo each time they talk. She is not denigrated within the narrative because she accepts his comments with grace, but her companion, who views his comments as sexual harassment, is ridiculed and dismissed by the third-person narrator. When the department hires an extremely attractive crisis counselor, Morck first watches her ass (describing it as though the woman's short coat was purposely displaying it for his benefit) and evaluates her body, face, and lips:
"Carl had been waiting a long time for the crisis counselor with the lovely ass, and now he was starting to feel uneasy. If she'd arrived on time, he would have let is natural charm guide him forward, but now, after having repeated his lines in his mind and practiced his smiles for more than twenty minutes, he was feeling deflated.
She didn't look particularly guilt-stricken when she finally made her arrival on the third floor, but she did apologize. It was the sort of self-confidence that drove Carl wild. [...]
The soft light revealed delicate lines on her face; her lips were sensual and a deep red. Everything about her signaled high class [what, like a high-class prostitute?] Carl locked eyes with her so as not to dwell on her voluptuous breasts. [...]
He looked at her with an expression of desire that women could no doubt read but could never know for sure was there. [because I'm sure they care.]
When they meet, all he thinks about is her physical appearance, and he tries to manipulate her sessions and her emotions so that she will go to dinner with him. When she ignores his advances, he considers her an "ice-cold broad" and he dismisses her to "polish her wedding ring"--again, as if her actions only mattered in relation to himself, and as if he were in control. The only other major female character in Morck's life is his not-quite-ex wife. The narrative portrays her as a money-grubbing leech, a shallow bitch who uses her sexuality to manipulate Morck, yet betrays him repeatedly. Somehow his repeated attempts to sleep with other women are not even considered reprehensible, while her behavior is unforgivable.
All other women are merely tools of the men around them, including the other major character, Merete. Merete spends the entire narrative as a victim, a damsel in distress, with her agency stripped from her and her agony on display for the vicarious enjoyment of the narrator. Personally, I found her entire story both repulsive and ridiculous. I am pretty good at suspending disbelief--my major reading is in urban fantasy, for Pete's sake--but a plot in which the villains lock the character in a hyperbaric chamber and laugh manically while they (slowly) raise the pressure (fourfold, over the course of five years)? Is it even possible to come up with a more idiotic, convoluted, nonsensical plot? I don't know if it puts me somewhere on the psychopath train or if I just saw too much Law and Order SVU as a child, but I can think of ten more logical and effective ways to torture and humiliate a victim off the top of my head.(show spoiler)
Women aren't alone in receiving the narrator's disdain; I can't exactly explain it, but the narration seems to treat the characters without human feeling or empathy. At the same time, the mystery is so painfully obvious that you will guess it as soon as the first mention occurs and spend the rest of the story gritting your teeth over the blind stupidity of Morck that the narrator insists on treating as brilliance.
The saving grace of the narrative is Assad, Morck's cheerful Syrian assistant. I absolutely adored him as a character: he's brash, always optimistic, and combines absolute naivetee in the detective method with a terrific empathy for humanity, a steel intellect, and a useful network of shady associates. The only reason I might ever consider picking up another Morck book is Assad. He is truly a fantastic character.
In general, I suspect I'm being unfair to the book because of its lack of narrative flow. Translated books are always a little tricky; unless the translator is Seamus Heaney or someone like that, dialogue and descriptions tend to become a little clunky and arhythmic in non-native prose. Overall, there were a lot of interesting aspects to the story--the symbolism of being locked away in the depths, the contrast between Morck's and Merete's positions, the engaging Assad--but for me, it was not enough to paper over the flaws in plot and attitude. A lost cause, indeed.