Written by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by William Frost — Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is now one of the country’s top literary exports. The jacket of The Hanging Girl – the sixth Department Q novel, featuring Carl Mørck – proclaims sales of 12.5 million copies. The author’s creation of a separate department within the Copenhagen police force, where cold cases are investigated by a team of misfits, has certainly made for compelling reading, and we’ve reviewed every novel so far.
Mørck is carrying plenty of personal guilt, and has more to lumber around with a few chapters into The Hanging Girl. A policeman called Habersaat rings him at Department Q imploring him to come to the island of Bornholm and take on a cold case. In a bizarre hit-and-run accident, a beautiful teenage girl called Alberte Goldschmid was struck at speed and thrown up into a tree.
This took place back in 1997. After the Bornholm department filed the case, Habersaat took it on in his spare time. Shortly after Mørck turns down his request for help, Habersaat dramatically shoots himself in the head at his own retirement ceremony. Mørck’s assistant Rose shames him into taking the case, and together with his other assistant Assad, they travel to Bornholm to begin investigations.
They soon make two discoveries. One is that Alberte’s murder ruined Habersaat’s life. His wife and son left him and outside of work he led a solitary and obsessive existence. But what they also discover is that Habersaat had a suspect. He was searching for the driver of an old VW Combi who was seen at a classic car fair – someone who might have had some contact with Alberte.
Adler-Olsen loves telling a story from several perspectives, and we don’t just see things from Mørck’s point of view. Far from it; victims, minor characters, colleagues and old friends all give a slant on the narrative. What’s always been excellent in this series is that the troubled minds and motivations of the criminals are also explored. Not far into The Hanging Girl, we meet Pirjo, a woman who is as ruthless as she is vulnerable.
Pirjo sits at the right hand of Atu Abanshamash Dumuzi, head of the Nature Absorption Academy on the Swedish island of Öland. In other words, a cult. Poor Pirjo watches as the charismatic Atu seduces young women in the group. Before long, we find out what lengths Pirjo will go to if one of these girls gets too close to Atu. She’s killed before and she’ll kill again in the hope that one day the tall, bearded love machine Atu will take her as his mate.
While Mørck, Assad and Rose make various breakthroughs in their procedural investigations, Pirjo’s troubled upbringing and current struggle for control at the nature absorption school are described. At first it seems obvious that Alberte was Pirjo’s first victim, 17 years earlier, but Department Q’s investigation is a long, long way from discovering her and throws up all kinds of other potential suspects and explanations.
The Hanging Girl is a vast novel, coming in at over 600 pages. On top of the main investigation, Mørck’s life is complicated by the death of his dastardly cousin, Ronnie. Another over arching story, that of his paralysed ex-partner Hardy, is also revisited. At one point, Rose has a relapse of her multi-personality disorder, and Morck’s relationship with Assad turns into something of a bromance as they face extreme physical trials together in the closing stages of the book.
That wry humour also makes a welcome return, not just in Mørck’s sarcastic repartee with his colleagues but also via the cast of very peculiar, but also very believable characters that we meet along the way. Adler-Olsen has a way when it comes to writing oddballs that make his books more enjoyable and more human.
What this one lacks, however, is the gripping intensity and sheer pace of some of his earlier novels. Perhaps this is a technical issue – Pirjo’s story is fascinating but it’s harder to engage with her quarry than has been the case with victims in previous novels in the series. Or it could be that the book is just a little too full of extraneous plot detail. Shave off 100 pages and maybe it would be as gripping as Mercy, Disgrace, Guilt or Redemption. A third possibility is that though there’s a cult in this story, the unerring belief and fanaticism seen in previous antagonists just doesn’t come through this time.
Of course, this book is a must for anyone following the series. If you’ve never read a Department Q novel, however, I’d point you towards the books mentioned above. They really are intense and unmissable.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars