I am still puzzled by what Jussi Alder-Olsen was really up to with The Keeper of Lost Causes. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good police procedural set in Copenhagen. On the other hand, it’s a gut-wrenching captivity narrative. What puzzles me is what these two plots are doing between the same set of covers. They don’t quite fit together for me.
The novel opens with Carl Mørck and his partners at the scene of a murder. The perpetrators are still there and kill one of Mørck’s partners, paralyze another, and almost kill Mørck himself. When Mørck returns to duty a week or so later, he is shuffled down to the basement to head up Department Q, a department especially created for cold cases. Mørck gets the job because his bosses and most of his coworkers don’t like him and because his supervisor wants to pocket the new department’s budget for the homicide department. Mørck only has a recently immigrated Syrian mystery man to help him. And, at first, Mørck isn’t interested in even reading the case files that have been sent down to him. The Syrian, Assad, pushes him into investigating the disappearance and presumed suicide of a Folketing politician, Merete Lynggaard. Mørck is morose, occasionally sarcastic, and a decent investigator. If Alder-Olsen had stuck to this plot, the book would have been a decent, if not outstanding, Scandinavian mystery.
The other plot is much more engaging, even terrifying at times. The book jumps back and forth in time. Mørck’s plot takes place in 2007. Merete’s story starts back in 2002. Instead of being lost at sea as everyone, even Mørck, believes, Merete is kidnapped on a ferry and imprisoned. As the novel develops, her timeline moves up until it becomes clear that she is still alive and very much in danger as Mørck makes frustratingly slow progress on her case. The plots converge, as they must. The ending was very, very good and packed with twists. It was worth waiting for.
As I got more of Merete’s story I got more frustrated with Mørck. I wanted to reach into the book to shake his collar and shout that Merete was still alive. The juxtaposition of the two related plots leaves Mørck in a very unsympathetic and unflattering light. He’s meant to be the star, or at least the protagonist, of a series. The second Mørck book is already out in English translation, but I don’t think I’ll bother. What draws me to the detective characters I like the most is the drive to see justice done. Until the end of The Keeper of Lost Causes, I don’t get that at all from Mørck. I get the impression that he likes pissing people off more than anything else. While I appreciate snark and taking the piss out of the pompous, there has to be something deeper to a character in order for me to bond with them. So, with The Keeper of Lost Causes, I guess you can take it or leave it.