The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen (translation by K.E. Semmel)

Crime thrillers.  They’re tricky.  When kidnapping, murder, torture and rape are common plot elements there’s a definite risk of taking things too far.  I mean, by definition things have already gone farther than they should when those words are introduced.  Suffice it to say they’re not my favorite genre category.

Set in Copenhagen, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Absent One is the second book in his Department Q series.  Police detective Carl Mørck heads Department Q.  His specialty:  cold cases.  But the latest file, which appears mysteriously on his desk, qualifies as frost-bitten.  A 20-year old double murder, connections to some of the most powerful men in Denmark, AND the confessed murderer already in prison – this is one investigation he should walk away from.  But before he realizes it Mørck and his team are pulled into a dangerous game of cat and mouse that has been going on for decades.

The antagonists are a gang of sociopaths who met as students at an exclusive boarding school.  The male members are for the most part interchangeable: a sadist, a masochist, one who likes to hurt animals, another who likes to demean women.  It’s the one female member of the group – a troubled girl named “Kimmie” – whose mind and motives Adler-Olsen is intent on exploring.   Interestingly, just because she’s troubled doesn’t mean she’s a victim.

It might seem like I’m revealing a major plot spoiler.  Don’t worry, who the murderers are isn’t in question.  You’ll know their identities within the first few chapters.  The plot of The Absent One is propelled, instead, by revelations –  each more twisted than the last – moving the reader towards one final, bloody confrontation. This type of book is ultimately about revenge and justice.  The reader expects to be told (preferably in lurid detail) what the villains have done to deserve their fates.  And when it arrives their punishment must be as gruesome and inventive as their crimes.

Nordic authors know how to crank up the horror.  And Jussi Adler-Olsen isn’t new to this game.  In his part of the world he’s as famous as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Peter Høeg.  In Denmark he’s the #1 crime writer.  He writes like a #1 author.  What does that mean?  It means I couldn’t stop turning the pages.  Even with my reservations, and I had many, I still wanted to know what happened next.

About those reservations:  I’d like to give Adler-Olsen the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps he went over-the-top on purpose in order to make the violence more palatable – consciously made the scenarios appear unlikely.  Some of his characters and settings are almost comically overdone. One member of the gang even has, for all intents and purposes, a lair. There he keeps a menagerie of exotic animals in a state-of-the-art facility tended by a village of transplanted African workers.  He holds infamous hunting parties with endangered species as the game for his equally rich, and equally detestable, cronies.  And before a hunt he has a little ritual.  A topless Somali women brings him four chicken hearts for breakfast.  It seems like a parody.

On the opposite end of the narrative are Mørck, his Iranian assistant Assad and his new secretary Rose.  All have mysteries in their pasts which I expect will be revealed little by little in subsequent books of the series.  Yet it’s the seemingly trivial aspects of their daily lives and relationships that I want to learn more about. My worry is that they won’t be given the attention they deserve, spread too thin over too many books and always assigned the B-plotline.  Of course, it’s a moot point.  Translation is slow.  Three of those books have already been written.

Publisher:  Dutton, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 525 95289 3