Disgrace, by Jussi Adler-Olsen
How to follow the best book of 2011? Of all the problems that could face a crime writer, it’s by no means the worst, but it’s one that faces Danish sensation Jussi Adler-Olsen. Last year’s Mercy was a masterpiece of Nordic noir, introducing us to a classically curmudgeonly detective named Carl Mørck, and his mysterious Syrian assistant, Assad.
Disgrace takes place just a few months after the events of Mercy, and finds Mørck much as we left him. Still plagued by guilt over the death and the quadriplegia of colleagues Anker and Hardy respectively; still in a dysfunctional relationship with his ex-wife and his son; and still enjoying an effective but unusual bond with Assad – officially a cleaner, but quietly masquerading as an Assistant Detective, and functioning largely as a partner. Against this backdrop, Carl and Assad find themselves working on a twenty-year old case which is not just cold, but apparently closed, with a man already in prison for the crime. As they investigate, Adler-Olsen tells a tale of upper class cruelty and depravity, contrasted with the harshness of life on the streets of Copenhagen.
The decadent, nihilistic barbarism of the upper classes is a well-worn theme in fiction, and Disgrace is hardly breaking any new ground here. Indeed, there is an almost cartoonish quality to the villains of the piece; they are irredeemable bad-guys, devoid of scruples and with apparently limitless resources. Without any moral grey to make them sympathetic, they are less engaging than they could have been, and as their violent tastes are indulged in ever more expensive and elaborate ways, they appear as something between Patrick Bateman and Wile E Coyote.
Far more complex and enchanting is Kimmie, a homeless and coarsened dropout, eking out a living among Copenhagen’s homeless, fuelled by hatred and plagued by disembodied voices that smack of schizophrenia. She is haunted by her own dark past, but while circumstance should mark her as the heroine of the piece, she often seems less than concerned with redemption. She is by far the most fascinating character of the book.
In Mercy, the relationship between Carl and Assad was the strong point. In the previous book, Assad was allowed only one revelatory exclamation with regards to his back-story, here has even less light shed on his character. If we are to ever see him fully explained, one senses we will have to strap in for the long haul. Adler-Olsen works in innuendo and implication – while we can harbour suspicions as to Assad’s former life, his creator will no doubt be stringing us along for a while yet before the big reveal.
While there is very little explicit detail about Carl and Assad in Disgrace, it does mark a departure from much Nordic noir. While tensions around immigration are a pervasive theme in the Scandies, Adler-Olsen shows us a partnership that is successful on every key level. Though both Carl and Assad are socially unconventional types, they are effective and instinctive investigators, and enjoy a bond characterised by tacit respect, albeit never coming close to overt friendship or fraternity. In a genre where racial difficulties are an endless source of material, Carl and Assad are a heartening reminder that we are all ultimately just people, and can succeed together as such. Of course, this is in stark contrast to the relationship between the villains of the piece and their anonymous, imported servants – Adler-Olsen doesn’t let Danish society off the hook quite so easily.
Is Disgrace up to the standard of Mercy? Probably not. It has all the darkness and dysfunction of its predecessor, but misses perfection by setting aside depth of character. It touches upon all the peripheral detail of Carl’s life, but puts too little meat on those particular bones for a book of over 500 pages. In fairness to Adler-Olsen though, even among the greats consistent perfection is rarely attainable, and Disgrace is still a powerful book. It comfortably covers all the bases covered by the best Nordic noir, and the series remains laden with promise.