Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen was very nearly ShadePoint's Book of the Year for 2011. Introducing Detective Carl Morck of Danish cold case division, Department Q, the novel was a breathtaking read, and a superb welcome for Morck and his brilliantly realised sidekick Assad.
No surprise then that this second in the series was eagerly awaited and read in a flash when it arrived. It is actually very nearly as good as its predecessor. In the ever so slightly fated way that cases appear on Morck's desk, on this occasion he is investigating the 20 year old murder of a brother and sister. Like Mercy, the story will lead him into a race against time, and various worlds of horror and suspense.
A huge part of the success of these books is the characterisation. Morck and Assad are fabulous characters - there is a wit and knowing about their creation, and yet also a great tenderness. Like Wallander, for example, Morck is one of those superbly realised and deeply human detectives that so mark Scandinavian crime fiction. Assad is a wonderful character - a man of mystery with seemingly endless hidden talents that appear to hint at some past of secret service and espionage. Like the increasing numbers in The Magnificent Seven, in Disgrace, Department Q is augmented by the equally super character of Rose, who becomes quite quickly more than an admin assistant. Nothing is ever as it seems in Department Q and it is a loveable feature of the series that one expects more and more will be revealed about the characters as the books progress. The result may well be a deeper and deeper attachment to them as people, and a sense of following their narrative as much as that of the books to come. This, I think, is a very strong indicator of how well these stories are conceived.
Similar to Mercy, there is such skilled setting of pace here - the progression of the investigation is handled at a constant clip, which never seeming rushed, captures a constant changing of perspective and unravelling of information that really is quite perfect. Adler-Olsen is a fabulous writer. When this skill at creating, releasing and then increasing tension is so well handled, the combined talent of involving the readers so completely in the characters makes for overall strength. As Morck and Assad plunge ever more into the widening complexities of the case, and face huge peril together, it is as exciting and distinctive as that excellent first in the series.
Except, brilliant thought it is, I think its perhaps not quite as good. Still vastly superior to most other things around, but just not as completely achieved as Mercy. It's churlish, really, because it feels almost too picky to criticise a great read for not being as good as an even greater read. I had this issue with Johan Theorin last year - and he's one of my favourite writers. So what's wrong? Well, I think Petrona explained this perfectly in her recent review of the book - there is an absence of Adler-Olsen's verve with characterisation when it comes to the bad guys here; to the extent that it does become hard to continue to engage with them as real people, as is easy to do with Morck. They are also just fairly obviously the bad guys. When it comes to the final showdown in a billionaire's complex, there is even a hint of a James Bond installation finale that undermines the good work gone before. It'd make for a great film though. But critically, as Petrona observes, the great mystery that fuelled Mercy like a rocket is slightly missing as a result.
Having said all that, though, this really is a fine book, and Adler-Olsen is more than just one to watch - he may well become top dog when these stories come to film, which is to be very soon. Perfect thriller reading, intelligent characterisation and a constant sense of the human context of the story, he's a master of this form. ShadePoint is a Department Q fan already - roll on the next one.