The Nordic life, then, is all about the noir. The night that is interrupted by a brief, pale patch of day; the night that will transmute itself into the cruel, interminable winter, swallowing up light and life.
“Our winters made us storytellers,” says Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Danish writer, over the telephone from London, where he is promoting his novel Mercy that has just been translated into the English language. At 60, Adler-Olsen has become the newest entrant into that genre of Scandinavian crime/thriller writing that has seen stunning commercial success in recent times, with Swedes like Henning Mankell and the late Stieg Larsson ruling the roost.
Mercy tells the story of Merete Lynggaard, the young vice-chairperson of the Social Democrats, the darling of the masses and the media not just for her sharp comments or irreverence but also because of her “feminine attributes, mischievous eyes, and seductive dimples”. She sold “a hell of a lot of newspapers”, if only to keep people wondering why she was never seen with a man. And then, all of a sudden, she disappears from a cruise boat; before long, the world at large has given her up for dead.
The mystery of Lynggaard’s disappearance climbs back into reckoning in the police department not so much on its own merit, but more to rehabilitate Carl Mørck, a sharp, intuitive police detective who has rejoined the force after recovering from a shooting attack that left a colleague dead and another badly injured. As the sole individual in charge of the newly-established Department Q — which revisits cold cases — Mørck is confined to a basement office. He would happily slack off his designated work, all the while nursing a sodden guilt of having hesitated to pull the trigger on his attackers, if it is not for his assistant Assad. Of West Asian origin, it is Assad, his intelligence and shrewdness far superior to his role as a cleaning man, who puts Mørck on the scent. Interestingly, the character of Assad the immigrant has found instant popularity in Denmark, Adler-Olsen points out, with people finding him “loveable and funny and bright”.
If the wider social perspectives and political analyses are regarded as the selling points of much of Scandinavian crime/thriller novels, Adler-Olsen steers clear of that formula in Mercy. No Eastern European gun-running animates the action, nor is anybody sifting through the post-Cold War chaos of drug cartels and prostitution rackets. Instead, the universe is Manichean, the power of good ranged against the animosity of evil and the cold horror that this eternal conflict is still capable of generating. It is the horror that Lynggaard’s existence ( a bit of a spoiler, but obviously she’s alive) generates — held captive in a dungeon by a nameless, faceless tormentor, the passage of years marked only by a leering announcement on her birthday.
Adler-Olsen had an early brush with this play of good and evil, as he visited several mental institutions with his father, a renowned psychiatrist. As part of a somewhat controversial technique, his father would allow him to mingle with the patients; the latter were expected to benefit from the empathy and fellow feeling. The patients were easygoing (though some were “real, real insane”) but it was the doctors who struck fear in his heart. “Most of the themes of my books draw from the abuse of power I saw there,” he says.
In as much as the Swedes, Danes or Norwegians might be the toast of the season, it is a trend that will pass, says Adler-Olsen. He recounts a time when as a 14-year-old boy scout he had to sit atop a tree and keep his companion entertained by making up scary stories about his surroundings.
“Nowadays, the evening is spent in front of gaming consoles and a time will come when the source of stories will dry up.”