Wednesday, August 10, 2011: Maximum Shelf: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Maximum Shelf: The Keeper of Lost Causes
In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Jussi Adler-Olsen's The Keeper of Lost Causes, which will be published next Tuesday, August 23. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Debra Ginsberg. Dutton has helped support the issue.
We had technical difficulties when we tried to send this last week. We present it now in its full form.
Tomorrow in the Shelf
The Keeper of Lost Causes
by Jussi Adler-Olsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally (Dutton, $25.95, 9780525952480, August 23, 2011)
Carl Mørck is back at work after being on sick leave, an innocuous term for what had happened to him: on a dead-body call, he and two colleagues were gunned down. In only five minutes, "Anker lay on the floor in a pool of blood, Hardy had taken his last steps, and the fire inside Carl was extinguished--the fire that was absolutely essential for a detective in the homicide division of the Copenhagen Police." Mørck is no longer himself, the ace detective who lived and breathed his work; the tall, elegant man now has deep shadows under his eyes and an expression of profound indifference. At the station, he's argumentative and disruptive, and his fellow officers are fed up. But a plan emerges with a funding mandate from a government official, who has decreed that a new department, called Q, be set up to look into "cases deserving special scrutiny." Cold, hopeless cases. Perfect: put Mørck in charge and move him to the basement, far away from everyone.
So Mørck descends to the basement, "the fourth circle of Hell," realizing the intent is to isolate him, and decides to do nothing, which is what he wants anyway. But Mørck soon discovers that the funding for his department is a lot more than he was told, and the money is being used for the rest of the department, so he leverages his information to obtain a car and an assistant. Not quite the assistant he was expecting, though--civilian Hafez el-Assad, whose "hairy mitt... looked as if it had tried a bit of everything." And it has, as Mørck finds out over time. Assad's coffee is a jolting experience, he's driven a taxi, a truck, a T-55 tank and motorcycles (with and without sidecars); he's a wiz at organizing the office and washing the floors, and quite deft with a switchblade. Assad, with his curiosity, drive to learn and useful copy of Handbook for Crime Technicians, pushes Carl into reluctant action with the case file on Merete Lynggaard.
Five years earlier, Merete disappeared. A rising star of the Social Democrat party, loved by tabloids because of her beauty and lack of respect for the current government, she was last seen on a ferry to Germany. She and her brain-damaged younger brother, Uffe, were on a holiday to visit the zoo in Berlin, and she simply vanished; Uffe was later found wandering in Germany. Did she commit suicide? Did Uffe harm her? Was she kidnapped? Merete was a private person, and had little social life because of her devotion to her "sweet, silent" brother, so who was the mysterious, handsome man she had dinner with shortly before the trip? And how was her brother injured as a child?
What we know from the beginning of The Keeper of Lost Causes is that Merete is being held in a cell by captors who will not tell her why she's being held. The cell is bare, with a hatch for a daily bucket of food and water and a waste bucket. She has no bed, no blanket, no lights--and no answers. On her birthday, she gets two presents: the light will be turned on for a year, and she has the opportunity to answer her own question: Why is she in a cage like an animal? When she says she doesn't know, her captors pump up the air pressure in her chamber to two atmospheres, and tell her she'll have another opportunity to answer the question in a year. How much pressure can she stand? Merete fights against madness by reading books in her mind, by thinking about Uffe, by maintaining what little dignity she can.
"It was a stupid case, full of inconsistencies... no plausible theories. No clear motive." But Mørck is pulled in, almost by the strength alone of Assad's will (and coffee). As they pursue leads, they combine skills-- not gracefully, but usually gratefully. Carl Mørck is complex, as one would expect, with a messy, dysfunctional life: separated from his wife but not divorced, he's funding her new whim, an art gallery. His stepson, a teenage slacker, lives with him; he suffers from survivor guilt about the shooting; he has occasional pains in his chest. He views his life, and the world around him, with a wry, mordant wit, through which we absorb lessons on Danish society and politics: "Whenever a case was rummaging around in his brain, it would be easier to track down a competent local politician than to make contact with Carl, and they all knew it." He questions a politician, and gets a sincere reaction, "As if somewhere inside that body, nourished on high-class reception delicacies, there still might be a human being."
Assad is not merely a simple foil; a Syrian political refugee, with eyes like a hawk and a mind to match, he has a past, and is trying to create a better future. Admittedly, he's a stereotypical mad driver (" 'Have you ever driven a car in Denmark?' Carl asked as they were well on their way towards Stevns. Assad's silence was answer enough."), but he complements Carl, particularly when charm is called for. And Merete Lynngaard: a strong, willful woman, a loving sister with a burden on her heart so heavy it appears to her only in dreams. She's resourceful--what she can do in her world of gray nothingness with a pocket torch, a plastic stiffener from her down jacket, and memories of Winnie the Pooh is remarkable.
Jussi Adler-Olsen has written a Scandinavian thriller without snow and with a leavening wit. But it is certainly dark, with enough evil to chill a summer day's reading. The characters are appealing and complicated, even Uffe, and by the time the book is ending, the tension is so high turning the page is difficult. But you have to. You won't be sorry. And happily, Dutton has the next Department Q book, and there are even more waiting to be translated. Good news for mystery and thriller lovers. --Marilyn Dahl
Jussi Adler-Olsen: Wild Cases and Chases
What would you most like your American readers to take away from The Keeper of Lost Causes?
Just as in the case of Mad Men, The Sopranos and other good series, I hope the reader gets to know the main characters so intimately that he or she practically cannot live without them once the book is read. That the reader will enter spheres of tension and excitement he hasn't experienced before, but is determined to carry on, even if it costs a couple of hours' sleep. That the reader can't help laughing one minute, only to be shivering with hair-raising suspense the next.
Carl Mørck is a wonderfully realized and nuanced character; he's dark, funny, vulnerable, tough, ironic, and completely human as he works to untangle the myriad complications of his many undefined relationships. Where did you get the inspiration for this terrific character?
Well, actually I'm not a crime-writer, I write thrillers, where everything can happen and where the primary intention is to prevent a crime from occurring, not "merely" solve it. So I needed to get rid of all the restrictions that a police officer has in his daily work in terms of narrow geographic divisions and what kind of crimes he is supposed to work on. I had to invent a character that nobody wanted to work with, so he could be on his own and do precisely as he wanted.
Back in the days when I was managing director of a big, Danish magazine publishing house that published Mad Magazine, among other things, I discussed with William H. Gaines (who created Mad) which cartoon strip was the best, and, funny enough, we pretty much agreed on "The Shadow Knows" by Sergio Aragonés, which consisted of very small and often simple cartoons with all sorts of folks in all kinds of daily situations, but where their shadows behind them projected (literally) their true thoughts and motives. This cartoon strip reflects everything we dream about being able to say straight to the face of our boss or to our kids, and it reflects in a nutshell the essence of both Carl Valdemar Jussi Henry Adler-Olsen and Carl Mørck. Therefore I decided a good portion of irony, satire and self-irony--combined with humor--were going to be important components of this main character.
However these characteristics--combined with great knowledge of, and experience in, police work, plus a dysfunctional private life--were not going to comprise the aggregate picture of Carl Mørck. My childhood at psychiatric hospitals (as son of psychiatrist head doctor Henry Olsen) taught me at an early age--actually through a deranged patient named Mørck--that good and evil are basic elements in all of us, and my memory of this patient's struggle with the evil inside him gave nourishment to an important portion of my main character, a police officer named Carl. So naturally he ended up being named Carl Mørck.
Despite the horrific nature of the crime in The Keeper of Lost Causes, there are many moments of skillfully executed comic relief. How big a part, for you, does humor play in this novel?
The shortest distance between two people has always been laughter. A single person's laughter in a large gathering can infect everyone. Laughter can be heard at a distance of 500 feet and, when used conscientiously, can build bridges over everything. The Department Q series deals with many serious topics, and in that context humor serves a number of purposes. It creates some breathing room for the reader where the tension is a little too high. It builds bridges between the lead characters--Carl, Assad and, later, Rose--and it also builds bridges over the great chasm of political disagreements that are currently so prevalent in Denmark and many other places in the world. With humor you can avoid pedantry and superciliousness that never achieves anything positive, anyway.
Several characters in this novel struggle with disability, both intellectual and physical. Is this an important theme for you?
I think it was my childhood at the psychiatric hospitals that taught me to place so much value in knowing people whose lives are not at all like our own; it taught me that no two people are the same--nor should they be. These oddball types of every persuasion have awakened my empathy for--and understanding of--the fact that life can go in many directions. Tolerance is a precondition for positive interaction between people. If it were up to me, we'd all learn sign language and work to make it easier for our socially, mentally and physically handicapped fellow citizens to be different. What we get in return from these people cannot be gauged in terms of time or money. New ways of thinking, ideas and points of view arise. Simplified philosophies of life are made more complex, and complex values are toned down and made simpler. That's why I usually treat these people in Dept. Q's character register sympathetically.
Mørck's assistant, Assad, is such an intriguing character. On the surface, he seems quite guileless and naïve, but there is clearly a great deal of complexity just below this exterior and we see both sides revealed through his relationship with Mørck. How did that relationship develop as you wrote the novel?
Assad's story is one of Department Q's pivotal and most cryptic elements. He arose out of a single sentence that my good friend and translator Steve Schein said one day when I called him up and declared that I missed him and was thinking about him a lot. At which point he answered: "Hey Jussi, that's fantastic. Great minds work alike. I was just thinking about me, too."
I built up the offbeat character of Assad through this single sentence. He's like Don Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza. Alive, animated, full of dodges and quirks and the one who kick-starts a story. The relationship between Carl and Assad can be compared to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, though Assad is not completely Watsonian. Assad is employed as a unique kind of janitor for Carl. He seems simple-minded, but actually possesses a great sense of humor and is very intelligent, especially when it comes to his abilities in helping police investigations. Assad was "born" into the role of Carl's catalyst. He's the one who is able to get his work-weary superior interested in his job and life around him. And at the same time Assad is a perfect example of an immigrant who is the equal of any man and at least as well educated, and is not the least apprehensive about different cultures working side by side. Assad's long tale develops slowly from volume to volume in the series and is at least as exciting, bloody-minded and unpredictable as Carl's. Just wait!
What looms on the horizon next for Department Q?
Most importantly, a new colleague joins Dept. Q: the outlandish, willful Rose, who is able to control the whole department with her idiosyncratic, anarchistic demeanor, and Carl doesn't even notice. At least not at first.
The Department Q novels constitute one long, continuous thriller narrative with all the effects and tricks dramaturgy has to offer, built over a series of cases where each novel takes place in a new, unusual, hopefully never-seen-before location, with original characters and an original plot.
That's all I'm going to reveal, except that one day perhaps all the novels in the series will be remembered for their individually unique type of forward momentum, as well as their wild cases and chases.
Enjoy. --Debra Ginsberg
Ben Sevier: A Book That Kept Him Up at Night
Ben Sevier is executive editor at Dutton, where his list includes Harlan Coben, Tami Hoag, Lisa Gardner, Jonathan Tropper, John Lescroart, Linda Fairstein, T. Jefferson Parker, Selden Edwards, Daniel Suarez, Brad Taylor and Marcus Sakey.
As an editor, what attracted you most to The Keeper of Lost Causes?
Quite honestly, it's one of the most original, engaging and compelling crime/thriller novels I've read in the last 10 years, in any language. I have a very simple acquisition strategy: I'm looking for books that keep me interested, keep me turning pages, keep me up at night. No matter how well-positioned to take advantage of a particular trend, no matter what platform or background an author might have, no matter what language the book was originally written in, if I don't fall in love reading the book I don't believe I'm going to have much success in finding an audience for it.
The Keeper of Lost Causes has won numerous awards and has been compared to the work of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. How is this novel different from other Scandinavian thrillers that American audiences are already familiar with?
I'm a longtime reader of Henning Mankell and of course I've read the terrific Stieg Larsson trilogy; I've also recently discovered the work of Jo Nesbø. So with some experience but something far short of expertise, I would say that Jussi's work has a sunnier worldview than some of the Scandinavian crime fiction I know. It is a world where bad things happen to good people, but it is also a world where there is laughter and lightness and promise. I'm sure Jussi shares many characteristics with writers who happen to come from the same part of the planet he does, but I caution us all from lumping these terrific writers together as one; there is at least as much variation between and within their works as there is similarity.
A look at current bestseller lists would indicate that readers have embraced the kind of psychological complexity and flawed characters so well represented by The Keeper of Lost Causes. To what do you attribute the current popularity of these darker kinds of novels?
I think flawed characters are familiar and reassuring to readers. We all know our own darkest thoughts and deeds, and we know those of our friends and families too; that intimacy forms the bond of our closest connections with people. To know a character like Carl Mørck with all his flaws and imperfections is a bit like looking in the mirror, isn't it? Or like a wonderful evening with your oldest friend, the one you've grown up with and fought with and been disappointed by and felt ashamed in front of. There is room in literature and entertainment for the perfect comic book hero who saves the world without a hair on his head out of place, but how many of us can truly relate to that character?
What were the challenges of adapting and editing this Danish novel for an American audience?
Happily, we did no adaptation. The translation was made with the goal of faithfully telling Jussi's story in a new language. It was a great help that Jussi speaks excellent English himself, and through the efforts of a wonderful professional translator as well as an American-born bilingual consultant who knows Jussi very well and the Danish editions of Jussi's works intimately, I believe the English language edition of the book hews very closely to Jussi's vision and to the Danish original.
On a related note, was there any aspect of The Keeper of Lost Causes that you felt needed to be "lightened up" for an American audience?
Quite the opposite, actually--the major editing and revisions to the translation were made in consultation with Jussi in order to make sure the lightness and humor in the original work was carefully preserved. The darkest elements of the story are universal, in my opinion, and to "tone down" the work would have been unfair to the author and, perhaps more importantly, would have been the wrong editorial choice for the story. --Debra Ginsberg
Book Brahmin: Jussi Adler-Olsen
Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark's #1 thriller writer. His books routinely top the bestseller lists in northern Europe, and he's won just about every Nordic crime-writing award, including the prestigious Glass Key Award issued by the Crime Writers of Scandinavia--also won by Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Peter Høeg--and the Golden Laurels, the most prestigious Danish Literary award, founded by the Danish booksellers. The first volume in the Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes, hit the top of the bestseller lists in Denmark, Germany and Austria, the Netherlands and the U.K., and subsequent titles in the series also debuted at #1. It is now being released in the U.S. by Dutton (August 23, 2011).
On your nightstand now:
Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper (in fact, all novels in the Leatherstocking Tales).
Your top five authors:
John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, early John Irving, Sjöwall/Wahlöö and early John Grisham.
Book you've faked reading:
A textbook on economic theory by Stonier and Hague.
Book you're an evangelist for:
And Really Frau Blum Would Very Much Like to Meet the Milkman by Peter Bichsel.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Did it ever happen? Well, maybe some photo yearbooks or Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.
Book that changed your life:
The Art of Movies (Filmkunst) by Niels Jensen.
Favorite line from a book:
"Let there be light." --the Bible.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Tough one--so many fantastic novels to choose from. But to be honest: It would be fantastic to read one of my own novels for the first time. I am sure that any author would love to experience their own work from the reader's perspective. But of course that is impossible, so I will mention A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin or The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson--remembering the sweet times of a stimulating and very hot summer holiday in the mid-'60s in Southern France.