In the hierarchy of “reluctant detectives,” Danish homicide cop Carl Mørck ranks right up there with the most disinterested and disillusioned of the breed. Although once counted among his department’s best and brightest (“a tall, elegant man from Jutland who caused eyebrows to raise and lips to part”), after a quarter-century with the Copenhagen Police, and following a recent violent encounter that left one of his partners dead and the other paralyzed from the neck down, Mørck is now dismissed as “indolent, surly, morose, always bitching,” someone who “treats his colleagues like crap.”

In other words, he’s the perfect candidate for a brand-new, high-profile position.

Read last week’s Rap Sheet interview with Max Allan Collins.

At least that’s how Jussi Adler-Olsen casts him in The Keeper of Lost Causes, the opening installment of an already best-selling (in the author’s native Denmark) series of lean but riveting “Department Q” police procedurals.

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To designate the deep-basement quarters over which Mørck is sent to preside a “department” is rather like trying to pass off a skiff as an ocean liner. But then, Adler-Olsen’s middle-aged protagonist doesn’t care about where his office chair is located. He wants nothing more than to lean back in it and play on his computer and smoke cigarettes, maybe ponder every now and then the cruel hand life has dealt him, until his retirement checks begin rolling in. And his arrogant superiors care even less about what Mørck’s up to than he does. Department Q is supposed to be a stage set, designed to satisfy politicians claiming they want to get to the bottom of ugly, unsolved cases—and are prepared to pump extra appropriations of “a couple of million kroner” into the Copenhagen P.D.’s annual budget to make themselves look tough on crime. 

Soon, however, Mørck has the misfortune to acquire an assistant, a thoroughly unqualified, barely Danish-literate but curious immigrant from the Middle East named Hafez el-Assad. When Assad tires of scrubbing Department Q’s paltry real estate, he starts organizing the closed-case files sent down to Mørck to keep him busy, and comes up with what even his nap-prone boss must admit is a fairly engaging mystery.

Five years ago, it seems, Merete Lynggaard, a smart, comely young lawmaker in the Danish parliament, who appeared destined for greater leadership responsibilities (much to the displeasure of the opposition party, as well as some veterans of her own faction) disappeared while riding a ferry on a peaceful day with her younger brother, Uffe, who in their childhood had been struck mute after a roadway accident that killed their parents. Most people figure Merete fell or jumped overboard, and drowned. Yet the evidence of that is lacking, and efforts to quiz Uffe on the matter have come to naught.

Much as he resists the impulse, Mørck starts poking around with questions—some of them directed at one of his station’s up-and-coming detectives, Børge Bak, who obviously bungled the original investigation to some degree. There’s lots of great tension built up in these pages between Mørck and Bak, as the former struggles to sort out the incomplete details of the Lynggaard case. That tension at once illuminates the protagonist’s intuition and signals Mørck’s rediscovery of the dormant talents that made him a certifiable, if manifestly eccentric, success.

Could it be that Merete Lynggaard didn’t perish half a decade ago? If not, where has she been all this time? (The novel’s original Danish title, Kvinden i buret—translated into English as The Woman in the Cage—should tell you something, without giving too much away.) And can the insubordinate, confidence-wounded Mørck find both her and a modicum of redemption before it’s too late?

Adler-Olsen, who picked up Scandinavia’s coveted Glass Key Award for his third Department Q novel, Flaskepost fra P (Message in a Bottle), suffuses this introductory tale with social and political commentary, and excels at creating sympathetic and credible characters. Those include not only the insubordinate and cynical Mørck, with his not-quite-ex-wife who wants his help in setting up an art gallery of her own, and his bedridden former police colleague who hopes Mørck will help him kill himself; and Assad, who boasts depths and talents that come slowly to the fore (and sometimes just in the nick of time); but also the victim in this story, Merete, whose horrific plight is followed in alternating chapters, and who demonstrates resilience and small moments of heroism that will have readers cheering her on, especially as the violent finale nears. Sadly, the author took less care in developing this book’s villains, who one anticipates at any moment will sprout mustaches and commence twisting their ends in evil glee.

Atmospheric, haunting and on many occasions humorous (English translator Lisa Hartford, aka Tiina Nunnally, deserves credit for conveying all of that from the original narrative), The Keeper of Lost Causes is a very satisfying series start. It leaves one with the question, though, of how Carl Mørck will remain miserable in the face of this first victory, and thus retain reader interest in future installments.

Let’s just hope he does.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.