Tuesday, June 21, 2011
english version of 'mercy' by danish crime writer jussi adler-olsen
Danish crime series with a Syrian twist
The relationship between a flawed detective and his sidekick is a staple element of crime fiction. The Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen [pictured below] has an unusual take on this classic pairing, in that Carl Morck – the troubled criminal detective of the four-novel ‘Department Q series’ – has as his sidekick a mysterious Syrian immigrant named Assad.
The English translation (by Lisa Hartford) of the first of the Q novels was published recently in the UK by Penguin Books under the title “Mercy”. Intriguingly, it emerges that Assad’s full name is Hafez al-Assad – the name of the man who ruled Syria for 30 years from 1970 to 2000, and whose son Bashar is now brutally battling to cling on to power.
Despite Morck’s relentless probing, Assad is reluctant to reveal many details of his life in Syria, and of how he and his wife and two daughters came to be granted political asylum in Denmark. Assad will only say that the Syrian government is not happy with him and that he would be killed if he returned to Syria. He is from a place called Sab Abar more than 200 kilometers from Damascus.
When Carl asks Assad if he has a driving license, the reply is: “I drive a taxi and a car and a truck and a T-55 tank and also a T-62 and armoured cars and the motorcycles with and without sidecars.”
At the outset of the novel Morck is deeply traumatized after an ambush in which one colleague was shot dead, another was left paralyzed, and Morck himself was wounded in the head. He is due to return to work after a recovery period.
But Morck’s colleagues in the homicide department have for some time been weary of his chaotic ways and abrasive manner and when he returns to work he is shunted out of homicide and banished to the basement to head up a new department. This Department Q is tasked with investigating unsolved crimes, known as “cold cases”.
Assad comes to work for Morck as an assistant, carrying out mundane tasks such as cleaning, preparing coffee and organizing files. But over time his sleuthing gifts and strong powers of observation and deduction become apparent. He starts to play an essential role in helping Monck with his investigations.
Department Q’s first cold case is that of an attractive young politician, Merete Lynggaard, vice chairperson of the Democrats, who had disappeared while travelling with her brother on a sea ferry five years earlier. Although her brother was initially suspected, no body was ever found.
The Danish title of the novel, “Kvinden i buret”, translates as “The Woman in the Cage”. In the prologue a woman is imprisoned in a dark room with a steel door. She resolves that her captors will never break her and that someday she will get out of her prison. It soon becomes apparent that the woman is Merete Lynggaard, but we are given no idea who her captors are, nor why they have seized her. The novel’s chapters alternate in time between 2007, in which the main action is set, and different times in the period after Merete’s 2002 kidnapping.
While Morck and Assad pursue their enquiries into Merete’s disappearance, the homicide department is investigating the murder of a cyclist in a park. Morck and Assad provide crucial suggestions on the solving of the cyclist’s murder.
“Mercy” is an ingeniously-plotted compulsively readable book that keeps the reader guessing. One of its enjoyable aspects is Adler-Oslen’s portrayal of the warm relationship that develops between Morck and his Syrian assistant. The English translation conveys Assad’s somewhat ungrammatical use of Danish. Morck is both amused and exasperated by his assistant’s behavior. He is alarmed by his crazy driving and impressed by his intuitive brilliance in detection. The short, dark Syrian has a way of charming even the strictest of secretaries and getting them to do favors for Department Q.
Hospitality is part of Assad’s persona. He brings sweet pastries for work colleagues, and is forever boiling up viscous, burning hot beverages full of sugar. One day Morck arrives at work to find the basement full of spicy cooking smells. “The explanation was to be found in Assad’s pygmy office, where a sea of baked goods and pieces of foil holding chopped garlic, little green bits, and yellow rice adorned the plates on his desk. No wonder it was causing raised eyebrows.”
Assad seemingly has contacts in the underworld. When as part of his investigations Morck needs to have a thick line removed to reveal a vital crossed out telephone number without damaging it and rendering it illegible, Assad tells him he “knows a guy from the Middle East” who can do it. The contact (perhaps Assad himself) performs a perfect job and Morck suspects he may be a passport forger.
The publication of “Mercy” has created much interest in the UK. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s publisher will be hoping that he will be the latest of a wave of Scandinavian crime writers to score major success in the UK. Their work is being labeled as “Nordic Noir”.
The importance of Nordic Noir on the UK literary scene is reflected in the fact that World Literature Weekend, organized from 17 to 19 June by the London Review Bookshop, includes a session in the British Museum this afternoon addressed by two major Swedish crime writers: Karin Alvtegen and Hakan Nesser.
The two authors will discuss the proposition that “behind crime fiction’s gripping narratives, there often lies a more incisive portrayal of a society than can be found in more obvious commentaries; and it offers a way to confront ideas of good and evil in a shades-of-grey world, where simple moral certainties aren’t so easy to find.”
The roots of the Nordic Noir phenomenon go back to the 1960s when Swedish journalists and partners Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo jointly wrote political thrillers focused on a detective called Martin Beck. Another significant writer in the Nordic Noir gentre is the Norwegian Karin Fossum. Her Inspector Konrad Sejer series, published from the mid-1990s, has won prizes and been translated into many languages. Iceland too is part of the Scandinavian crime fiction wave, through such writers as Arnauldur Indridason. Indridason established something of a following in Britain with his Reykjavik murder mysteries featuring Detective Erlendur.
A phenomenally successful pillar of Nordic Noir is the three-book Millennium series by the late Swedish investigative journalist and writer Stieg Larsson. The series, featuring punk-Goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, was published after Larsson’s death at the age of only 50 in 2004.
The small London publisher MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, had the good fortune to get the English publishing rights for the three books: “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”.
The books have sold exceptionally well, with “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” alone selling 15 million copies. The Swedish film versions of the three books were made some time ago. An English-language version of “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” is under production in the US and is due to be released in December.
Another giant of Swedish crime fiction is Henning Mankel, creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander. Wallander is popular in Britain, both in book form and in its TV incarnations. Three different productions of “Wallander” have been screened by the BBC. Swedish actors Krister Henriksson and Rolf Lassgard star in the different Swedish TV series of Wallander, while the British version stars Kenneth Branagh.
The Norwegian author Jo Nesbo was a rock musician, songwriter and economist before becoming a crime writer. His first novel featuring alcoholic detective Harry Hole was published in Norway in 1997. Nesbo is a prolific author, with nine Harry Hole novels published so far. Harvill Secker has published English translations, by Don Bartlett, of six of the novels, most recently “The Leopard”. Nesbo is a master of taut plotting and suspense.
With the publication of “Mercy” Jussi Adler-Olsen is set to join the big league of Nordic crime writers in English translation. His English-language fans look forward to the publication of the next Department Q novel in translation and to finding out more about Morck’s Syrian assistant Hafez al-Assad.