Jussi Adler-Olson, Mercy, translated from the Danish by Lisa Hartford (London: Penguin, 2011 ). A bravura start to the Department Q series: powerful, gripping and moving in equal measure 5 stars
Opening sentence: She scratched her fingertips on the smooth walls until they bled, and pounded her fists on the thick panes until she could no longer feel her hands.
On Friday 13th May, the author of Mercy joined John Lloyd, contributing editor on the Financial Times, to discuss his novel on BBC Radio 4. There was an entertaining clash of views: while Lloyd felt the book was ‘terribly, terribly, terribly dark’, Adler-Olsen thought Lloyd ‘completely wrong – it’s a very funny story in many aspects’. Having finished the novel today, I’ve come to the strange conclusion that they’re both right: Mercy will take you to the very darkest of places, while also somehow retaining the capacity to make you laugh out loud.
Mercy is the first in the ‘Department Q’ series, published in Denmark to great acclaim in 2008, and is the winner of a clutch of crime fiction prizes, including the Danish Reader’s Book Award. The novel introduces Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck, an outstanding investigator whose erratic behaviour following a traumatic shooting gets him kicked upstairs to lead the newly formed Department Q. Its remit: reopening and solving cold cases. Except being kicked upstairs actually means being kicked downstairs to a pokey office in the basement, without any investigative support other than chauffeur, cleaner and beverage-maker Assad.
The first case taken up by Mørck is that of rising Democrat politician Merete Lynggaard, whose sudden disappearance five years previously has never been satisfactorily explained. Everyone, including Mørck, assumes that she is dead. But is she?
Mercy is a beautifully constructed crime novel, weaving an account of Merete’s story since 2002 into Mørck’s investigations in present-day 2007. The movement between these strands creates a beguiling momentum that carries the reader forward in anticipation of the moment when – just maybe – the two narratives will intersect.
Merete’s tale is extremely dark and easily the most powerful part of the narrative: the crimes committed against her are horrifying, although the author manages to avoid the pitfall of crude misogynism through a compelling examination of how this young woman attempts to resist the powerful forces bent on her destruction.
The story of Mørck’s investigation into Merete’s case is lighter, in spite of his struggle with the trauma of a past shooting. Both his tussles with police colleagues and his developing relationship with Assad, an unlikely assistant sleuth with a few secrets of his own, provide genuine moments of humour, although these are never allowed to interfere with the progression of a first-class police procedural.
Interestingly, I managed to work out the ‘solution’ to the mystery at the heart of Merete’s story quite early on. Even more interestingly, this didn’t matter to me in the slightest. Mercy was such a quality reading experience that my enjoyment of the text wasn’t remotely impeded. I’m already impatiently looking foward to the second novel in the series, Disgrace.
An extract from Mercy is available here. With thanks to Penguin for providing Mrs Peabody Investigates with a review copy.
Mrs. Peabody awards Mercy an outstanding 5 stars.
I’ve really been interested in this one, and you’re not the first person who’s recommended it. I’m most definitely going to have to read this…
I highly recommend, Margo, and will be interested to see what you think of it.
How good to read a very positive review of a new book by a new (to me anyway) author. Will add this to the TBR list.
I was impressed by the Eurocrime review which compared Jussi Adler-Olson to Sjowall/Wahloo’s writing quality. That to me plus this review tell me to put this book on library reserve right away.
Hi Kathy – Yes, I can see the similarities with S/W in terms of the police procedural elements and the quality – the wry humour too. Definitely up there with the best of Nordic crime. Only just looking at other reviews of Mercy myself now (I try to avoid them before writing, so that my own opinion of a novel isn’t unduly influenced) – very glad that Maxine at Eurocrime liked Mercy too and wholeheartedly agree with her analysis.
What a fascinating analysis, thank you, I very much enjoyed reading it.
I very much enjoyed this book too, as you kindly noted. I noticed that Barry Forshaw’s review (independent I think?) also called this very dark, but I agree with you that it is more of a mix.
I very much liked the fact that Merete is not only not a victim but also that she’s the nicest character in the book. However bad her situation, she always comes across as more powerful than whoever is imprisoning her, followed through right to the resolution. She’s also portrayed as professional, kind and efficient at her job, rather than all these “superficially coping, inner lack of confidence” women in fiction I am getting rather bored of. I also very much liked the portrayal of the less able members of society – people with disabilities or other conditions were portrayed as actual people with personalities rather than as the usual stereotype.
This author does seem to “get” emotion, he manages to present really quite moving side-stories (eg Morck’s ex wife and stepson, both of whom I had little sympathy with at the start, but as the book progressed I warmed to them both through Morck’s human dealings with them and their sort-of rising to that treatment). But at the same time he is not a bit sentimental, and I think it is this ruthless honesty that might have caused some to call the novel “dark”. (I mean, honestly, compare it to a “gruesome voyeuristic” bestseller such as Mo Hayder or Karin Slaughter, or the “autopsy p**n” of Patricia Cornwell et al!)
As noted in my review (and I hate comparing authors to other authors gratuitously) many elements of this novel do remind me of Sjowall and Wahloo, in its underlying intelligence, policitcal/social comment, and attitudes of the police to bureaucracy and hapless lawmakers. Another current author who writes similar novels is K O Dahl (Norway), whose Oslo police procedurals are excellent (though I’ve only read two and their publisher suffers from Series Order Deficiency Syndrome), the same modern twists on essentially classic crime themes.
I loved the character of Morck and hope the author develops him in future books. The Assad byplay started out very well but I felt was not that successful in the climax to the kindnapping plot – I hope the author returns to form on that one. I also loved the plot about Morck and his 2 colleagues and the effects of the shooting on all three of them. And lots more!
Thanks, Maxine, for this very interesting additional comment. I very much agree with what you say – shades of Sjowall/Wahloo – and also Mankell in terms of the sometimes rather fractious relations with colleagues. In terms of plot, the disappearing woman trope reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Liked the ‘new’ cold case angle immensely. Thought that worked very well.
Yes, Merete is a wonderful character, and is depicted with real empathy and respect for her dreadful position and her fighting spirit. I often have difficulty reading the gruesomely voyeuristic bestsellers that you describe, especially when violence is so graphically directed against women, but do feel that A-O avoids this pitfall in the novel – it’s not what he’s about at all. I’ve heard writers like Val McDermid say that they are simply portraying reality (and she has a point if you look at the crime stats), but it’s easy to step over the line into gratuitousness. A-O is clearly concerned to give his victim a voice, and to allow her to move out of the victim position as far as is possible within the confines of her situation. I really liked that.
Assad: look forward to seeing how this character develops (hopefully A-O will avoid too many cliches). I have a theory about his past (probably not so hard to deduce…!)
Yes, I also liked the way various subplots were woven into Morck’s narrative – those involving his family, police colleagues, and the other two investigations. Really expertly done, so that your interest was held all the way through. Hats off.
thanks, Mrs P. On your comments about gratuitiousness, it is notable how Val McDermid has reined back on that, only a few years ago she was writing horribly explicit stuff but now has toned down a lot.
On the translator of Mercy, I along with a lot of people received a proof via Amazon Vine which carried the name of the translator. Between then and the finished, as-sold version, the name (but not the translator!) was changed. (Steven T Murray also does this, known also as Reg Keeland and McKinley Burnett).
Thanks for the clarification on both counts, Maxine. The last one I read of VM’s was The Last Temptation, so a while back, and I was really put off by the graphic description of the crimes. Might give her another go if you think it’s safe to do so! Very much liked her stuff apart from that element.
Well her latest, A Trick of the Dark, is a hilarious (not sure if intentional) full-on lesbian thriller, it is a breeze-through. No gratuitiousness but it is very silly! Fever of the Bone was not gratuitous per se but it was about teenage abductions via a social networking site and I found it rather distasteful.
I do like Nicci French’s novels and think they are a good example of nailbiting thrillers that don’t dwell on the sordid details. They usually have strongly independent female protags ;-).
Thanks again for this excellent article and discussion, looking forward to the next one!
Thanks, Maxine – likewise 🙂
Maxine, I certainly don’t enjoy being forced to use a pseudonym, but when the carefully crafted tone, style and even continuity of events in a translation is ruined by too many cooks (sometimes with tin ears), I have to protect my reputation to some extent. For the best reads, choose the books I haven’t removed my name from. It may take some sleuthing to find them, since AmazonUK won’t take the trouble to look at an actual book as confirmation that I was the translator – they need a URL to ‘prove’ it. We here at the ‘translation factory’ do take a lot of care with choice of words and resent it when thousands of changes are made just because someone else (editor, author, author’s expatriate American friends who may have forgotten their English) prefers a different synonym.
Hi Steven – not sure if Maxine will pick up your comment here, so will let her know that you have responded. My sympathies – have done a bit of academic translation and would be livid if those kinds of changes were made to my work.
Thanks, Steven. I understand what you mean, having heard you and other translators talk on this subject. Amazon or the publishers? Often when one reads a translated book one cannot find the name of the translator on Amazon or the publisher’s own website! It’s quite shocking.
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