Monday, 25 April 2011

REVIEW Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Eventually, Shade Point will get sent a Scandinavian crime novel that isn't any good. It has to happen. So far, though, it's beginning to look like there's a secret installation in the hills outside Bergen or someplace, where scientists and literature specialists from all over Scandinavia build and refine the perfect crime novel template before handing it to writer operatives to take over the world. The constant flow of great writing has to dry up. Someday. Surely.

Well, not today. Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen is a mighty old thriller. No wonder Lars Von Trier's production company has snapped up the film rights to Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, of which Mercy is the first. There is something at once big and cinematic about the book, and then something refined and human at the same time. It has the screen potential to be laden with action, fighting, and terror - while staring out at the audience from the point of view of ordinary people, ordinary lives and hopes and dreams dashed. It is something of this concentration on the interior isolation and yearning of characters, allied to the very best in edge of the seat storytelling, that is perhaps at least some part of that template from the Bergen hills. A lazy comparison to make because of the Danish connection, but if you liked The Killing, there's a real chance you'll like this book, and there's a real chance a book like this could be adapted for the screen with the same power.

(Anti) Hero of  Mercy Carl Morck is very much the troubled loner with the interior life of ice and blood that so characterises many Scandinavian thriller leads. To Shade Point, at least, he is very like Wallander. He has much of that detective's sense of human loss, regret and to an extent bitterness towards a world that is passing him by. There is something of the Western hero in characters like these, such walking anachronisms in the face of new national identities, new cultural dimensions and changing times. Morck and Wallander are really, in many ways, very similar to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. Something of Cormac McCarthy's elegies to characters wrestling with oblivion is present in these Scandinavian heroes.  In Morck there is also, like Leif GW Persson's Johannson, a hint of Le Carre or Greene's burnt out cases - isolated operatives who toil on the edge of, well, just about everything. 

Morck is particularly troubled because he emerges at the beginning of the novel as a survivor against the odds - he has been a gasp from death in an incident where one of his colleagues is killed and the other is paralysed for life. The bullet that hits Morck may as well have killed him, he might think, because an already erratic and anti-authoritarian world view is simply maxed out after this trauma. So much so, that in what they perceive as an ingenious move, his colleagues and superiors decide to take advantage of a political zeal for unsolved old cases to bump Morck upstairs - making him the commander of Department Q, a one man band operation to look into cold mysteries. They only give him part of the funding of course, and with comedic irony, actually stick him in the basement. 

Morck may be on the verge of burn out, but he's no fool, and readers will discover how he increases his resources, and inherits his assistant Assad, a man who is not who he seems to be at all. Along with a wider field of characters, including his hospitalised colleague Hardy, the future team of Department Q is starting to take shape. There is quite a bit of sly comedy to the process, and the whole thing is really enjoyable. There is a sense of a cast being assembled, a Magnificent 7 gradually being put together by the world weary Morck. 

Fate, which I think is another preoccupation of the white coats in the Bergen bunker, plays a huge part in the course of this novel. Deliberately so, and chillingly so. Amidst the setting up of Department Q, which the iconoclast Morck is in no hurry to exactly turn into work, the processing of old cases from upstairs to downstairs to the Q basement is desperately slow. Even then, Morck is entirely random about his approach to these missing persons and unsolved murder files. It actually takes Assad to prompt some greater interest in them, and even then a fair number of chapters have actually gone by before Morck deigns to read a case file. As we are soon to learn, however, this process takes place against the clock of life and death. When Morck and Assad plump for one of the cases to pursue, they could not have left it a minute later. In this randomness, this choice, there comes a keen awareness of the fragility of the balance of life and death. Morck could have just as easily gone for a different folder.

The first case is that of Merete Lynggaard, a politician who vanished 5 years before the start of the novel.  She is presumed to have jumped or fallen from a ferry. Her story, however, is much more complicated, and soon Morck and Assad are in a race against time to find out what happened to her. Without giving too much away, this is where the terror comes in. Merete's fate is appalling and the stuff of sleepless nights and haunted days. Morck and Assad simply must succeed. Towards the end the reader is willing them to prevail. I read one review where the reviewer confessed to actually stopping a bit through to read the last couple of pages. I can completely sympathise with this, the tension gets unbearable (which in my case led to a marathon reading session one sleepless night) but try to hang on. The sheer emotional weight of the ending needs the reader in the dark.

Mercy is a great book. The series is perfectly poised to be massively entertaining. There isn't of course a secret installation anywhere, there are just very good writers from Scandinavia, always have been, and perhaps they spring from a different expectation of the nature of thriller writing. Adler-Olsen tells a cracking, hugely exciting and compelling story, but he also describes people and moments that speak very keenly to the reader about life, fate and meaning. Perhaps this is the secret, and crime fiction from other places has become all about shock and forensic procedure; these successful Scandinavian writers are storytellers, and they are as concerned to create depth in characterisation as they are page turning thrills and (blood) spills. Morck could just as easily inhabit the pages of a non-crime novel. Like Wallander, I would read about him starting a salmon farm.