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Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Mercy” is a classy crime thriller that combines all the essential elements of the genre with a highly original plot and a rather novel line in torture. Two threads alternate and gradually intertwine as this terrific story reaches its climax; rarely have a read such a thrilling police procedural.
The story involves a cold case going back five years. Police detective Carl Morck is moved sideways to establish and head up Department Q, a new section which will re-examine old cases that have ground to a halt. Department Q solves a logistical headache for Carl’s bosses who no longer know what to do with him; he’s been struggling to deal with the aftermath of an incident which culminated in the death of one of his colleagues and severe injuries to another and Carl’s attitude, never exemplary at the best of times, is putting a strain on the section.
The cases Carl has been given sit gathering dust on his desk while he watches game shows with his feet up on the desk. It’s not until his newly assigned assistant, Assad, starts talking enthusiastically about one of the case files that Carl shows the slightest inclination to get to work. However, when Assad shows him the photograph of Merete Lynggaard, Carl can’t deny how pretty she is and he starts to take more interest in the job. Then he learns that a colleague’s error might have caused the original investigation to stall – a colleague that Carl does not get on with – and suddenly Carl is fired up to get to work. Is he really committed to solving the case, or is it only his dislike for the colleague in question that is driving his determination?
Merete is, of course, still alive and the reader is aware of this from the outset; the narrative alternates between Carl’s investigation and Merete’s horrible incarceration and the dramatic tension this creates keeps the pages turning. As the intentions of Merete’s captors become clear, the readers – but not Carl – know that he faces a race against time to solve the case. The climax is real heart in mouth stuff and far and away the most exciting ending I’ve read in crime fiction so far this year.
All the clues in the development of the character point to this being the first outing for Carl Morck and the reader learns a lot about what makes him tick but there are hints that there is far more to him than is presented here. In fact this is the first of three planned outings for Morck as publisher Penguin cashes in on the current popularity of Scandinavian noir. As well as developing Carl’s character, it looks likely that there’ll be more to Assad’s history. There’s an interesting ambiguity to Assad, a Syrian who appears to know a lot more about forensics than your average dogs body. That Carl gives Assad access to the case files and involves him so much in the investigation struck me as highly implausible but the relationship between the two men is engaging and looks set to provide some interesting storylines in the future.
As with the best Scandinavian crime fiction there’s a strong flavour of the setting without presenting a tourist office presentation, though given the bleakness of “Mercy” you’d be forgiven for booking elsewhere this year. I liked the depiction of the office politics of the Copenhagen police which creates some tensions among the staff of the station. The relationships depicted between the various layers of command seem authentic if hardly original. The government is supposed to have lavishly funded the new cold case department but Carl isn’t seeing much of the money, which appears to have been hived off for other areas; the question of whether Carl will discover the fraud looms large throughout the story.
There’s no doubt that Merete is one tough lady and her strategies for staying alive in her prison make for compelling reading. However, I found it baffling that with all that time for reflection, she devotes her energies to little projects and hardly seems to ask herself what she might have done to be treated in this terrible way.
A little humour, a rarity in this genre, adds some light to what is predominantly dark, but does highlight the absurdity of the presence of Assad at the heart of the investigation. I thought Carl came across as a rather unpleasant individual initially and I did struggle to really engage with him for the first fifty pages or so. However, when the humour starts to develop Carl becomes more human and there’s obviously a degree of warmth there which is hinted at as his back story starts to unfold.
Not intentionally, the ‘who dunnit’ element is way too obvious though the ingenuity of Merete’s torture and of Carl and Assad’s piecing together of the crime make this a novel worth reading anyway. The ending leaves a few questions unanswered, cleverly paving the way for the next instalment. It’s a book I’m very much looking forward to reading.