Monday, August 1, 2011

The Last Resort... and Second Chances


Words can have multiple meanings, and sometimes, the differences are subtle. Take “exhaustion”. We hear the word, and tend to picture a body utterly worn out by some sort of grueling physical activity, such as that of a workman who pounds nails into roof shingles for a living, after spending eight hours in the blazing July sun, or maybe a triathlete at the end of his/her race.
Exhaustion doesn’t manifest itself solely in the physical sense, though. Emotional exhaustion--that hollowed-out feeling which follows a period of intense grieving, for instance--can leave the body feeling just as fatigued as physical activity, and the same is true for mental exhaustion--such as when a person has thought long and hard about every aspect of a seemingly-insurmountable problem, in the fruitless search for a solution.
Any one of them--or a combination thereof--can lead to burn-out, that state of being completely fed up--with a job, a relationship, a situation... or with life itself. A dangerous thing, burn-out.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes is the tale of a man experiencing burn-out... and how he eventually finds his way again.

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It's a given that no matter how good things might seem, there’s always something (or someone) waiting to knock the wind out of our sails. Carl Mørck, a highly-regarded homicide detective in Copenhagen’s police force, was no different. His team had an excellent record, and Carl enjoyed the respect of his peers. So his personal life was somewhat less-than-idyllic, with a wife who moved out (but refused to divorce), leaving him responsible for a surly teenage son. On the whole, though, he was happy enough.
Until one day, that is, when everything was turned upside down during what seemed like just another routine murder investigation. In the span of a few seconds, Carl was shot, one of his partners was killed, and the other suffered injuries which would leave him paralyzed. And Carl, who failed to draw his weapon, now blames himself for the whole pathetic mess.
Returning to work following his leave of absence finds Carl a changed man. Gone are his curiosity about cases, his sense of humor, and his will to be a part of things; instead, he's a bitter, burned-out, unapproachable shell of his former self--and a man around whom everyone else soon learns to steer clear. 
This new-and-unimproved Carl is the last person in the department that anyone would expect to receive any commendations; forced into an early retirement, sure, but promoted? Never... yet that’s what happens, when his boss informs him that he’s been chosen to head the newly-established Department Q, a division created to investigate cold cases of significance from all over Denmark.
There's a caveat, of course. His new office is buried all alone in the basement, in a former grave for used office furniture, and manned by a staff of one. (Well, make that two, after Carl finagles an assistant for himself out of the boss.)
Carl continues to while away the hours doing puzzles, playing video games, and napping--just as he’s been doing ever since coming back on duty--while blithely ignoring the fifty case files that were delivered to his new digs. His assistant is another matter, though; Assad needs more of a challenge than swabbing the floors and running around headquarters searching out files and making information requests (the tasks for which Carl hired him). So, when Assad asks if he can look through a few files in his spare time, Carl figures it can’t hurt.
Turns out Assad has unexpected depths and insight (secrets, too, but that’s something Carl doesn’t discover until much later), and he becomes intrigued by one case in particular--the mysterious disappearance some five years earlier of an attractive young politician named Merete Lynggaard. Before long, Assad is pestering Carl every few minutes (or so it seems) with questions about the case file. Meanwhile, Carl’s boss makes it clear he expects regular progress reports from the basement. And just like that, Carl finds himself getting pushed into the Lynggaard case.  
The case, he has to admit, is interesting. The young woman vanished without a trace from a ferry one day. No one saw anything, so it’s been generally assumed that she must have gone overboard and drowned.
The lack of evidence leads to unanswered questions. Could this seemingly-successful and happy woman have been a suicide? If it was murder, then why? Or, if she was abducted, then how/what/why did that occur? 
Carl’s malaise ebbs away, as he and Assad go over everything again. Slowly, a different picture emerges, and the more scraps of information the pair manage to cobble together, the more certain Carl is of one thing: Merete Lynggaard didn’t drown, as people have been content to believe... but something far, far worse took place that day. 
And he’s convinced of one thing more: she’s still alive, somewhere... for now.

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Adler-Olsen really knows how to ratchet up the tension, and does so from the get-go in The Keeper of Lost Causes, successfully maintaining that same intensity and sense of urgency until the end. Alternating between episodes in the past and the present (for both Carl and Merete), the story ever-so-gradually takes shape and form for us. We learn how events occurred; we see why certain choices were made (although we can’t put everything together for quite some time).
Make no mistake, The Keeper of Lost Causes paints a grim picture--particularly in regard to Merete. The horrible conditions she has endured are harrowing. Hers is the story of a woman, caught up in the worst-possible nightmare, clinging desperately to her fragile sanity... because that is all she has left to call her own.
Carl Mørck’s story is nearly as haunting, as he deals with demons from his recent past (which continue to gnaw away at him even when he sleeps). The realities of having a paraplegic best friend and a dead one--both conditions for which he feels responsible--are heartbreaking, and how he copes feels very honest and true.
The author also does justice to his lesser characters, from the supporting to the most minor; we get a very good feel for what each person is like, and what attitudes, biases, and motivations each has, which further contributes immediacy and connection to the story.
And finally, there’s Denmark itself in a key role, from the clogged city of Copenhagen, with its many diverse neighborhoods, to the small, remote towns, and all the country roads in between. For me, a story is incomplete unless it provides a genuine and vivid sense of place... something which this one does, beautifully.
Jussi Adler-Olsen has long been an award-winning, bestseller crime writer throughout Northern Europe... finally getting the chance to take other markets (including the U.S.) by storm. For anyone who can’t get enough psychological suspenses or police procedurals, his introduction is long-overdue... but oh, so very welcome.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies
Note: The Keeper of Lost Causes will be released Aug. 23, 2011.