Written by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by Martin Aitken — Following Mercy, Disgrace and Redemption, Guilt is the latest in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series to be translated into English. It’s out in the UK on 27 February, but has been available in the US for a couple of months under the title The Purity of Vengeance. The US title is a more accurate – the story is all about both purity and vengeance.
Carl Mørck, a cynical, overweight detective, heads up Department Q, situated in the basement of police HQ in Copenhagen. He’s surrounded by cold case files from all over Denmark, and as well as making links between the cases, he and his assistants Assad and Rose now and again try and solve them. This despite the fact that Carl would rather sit with his feet up most of the time.
The 1987 file of Rita Nielsen finds its way to the top of the pile. She was a missing brothel madam with quite some wealth, and as Carl and his team dig further into her life story they decide it’s unlikely she threw herself off a bridge. She was due to fly to Italy to see Madonna, after all. Lots to live for.
We meet the other main characters in the present day and via flashbacks to the 1940s and 50s, as well as to the 1980s when Rita was alive. Firstly, there’s the 88-year-old doctor Curt Wad, head of a secret society called The Cause and also the leader of the Purity Party. They’re a far right group concerned that the Danish gene pool is being diluted not just by immigrants but also by lower class Danes who, as the party sees it, have too many children and live off welfare handouts.
Then there’s Nete Hermansen. Born on a homestead in some part of rural Denmark, her mother died when she was young and she was cared for by her father, brothers and a few members of the extended family. In one of the flashbacks, she’s impregnated by her cousin as a teenager. She miscarries but later becomes pregnant again after a visit to the fair. This is how she encounters Curt Wad, who performs an illegal abortion on her… but not before raping her. Uneducated and with no-one to support her to she complains to the police and a case is brought against Wad. His slick lawyer gets him off. Nete ends up in an institution for what Danish society at the time deemed to be mentally and/or morally deficient young women.
Carl, Assad and Rose carry on investigating and notice that four other Danes went missing within two weeks of Rita Nielsen’s disappearance. Statistically, it’s unusual that none of them later resurfaced. A nurse, a lawyer, a mechanic and a rural layabout – how can they be connected to a brothel owner? As the story flips between the present (2010), the 1950s, and 1987, it becomes clear how sinister Curt Wad and his organisation are – they’ve been performing abortions and sterilising young women and getting away with it. Almost. Because one of his earliest victims, Nete Hermansen, is out for revenge.
For followers of the series there are a few developments in Mørck’s life as well. Another body is discovered, linked to the shooting that saw his former partner Hardy paralysed. Unfortunately, however, we don’t learn much more at all about the Syrian immigrant Assad’s past, though once again Mørck relies on his assistant’s combat skills. The translation seems a little odd at times – Mørck and his team seem to use a lot of peculiarly British colloquialisms. It would be better if they sounded more Danish, like the other characters. There’s the usual humour throughout but the cynicism in Mørck’s narrative gets to be a bit much after a while.
Adler-Olsen’s plotting is as complex as it is wonderful. Nete Hermansen’s difficult and tragic life is played out poignantly and the author will convince you to support her as she tries to get even, even if it means murder. Likewise, you’ll hate the eugenics preacher Wad, bewildered that these awful things might actually have been perpetrated in Danish institutions as recently as the 70s. Will Assad and Mørck hunt the bigot down as he carries on trying to cover up the harm he’s done? Read it and you’ll get to find out – the final quarter is particularly tense.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars