Scandinavia’s army of mystery novelists are always keen to deface the pretty postcards of the Nordic ideal, that this little paradise of social welfare has just as much drugs, crime, corruption, greed, pettiness, and stupidity as anywhere else.
Jussi Adler-Olsen assigns himself that task in the fourth novel of his highly regarded Department Q series, choosing to expose a particularly unflattering portion of history that was not limited to well-intentioned Scandinavians: eugenics, and more precisely, the practice of forced sterilization of society’s undesirables, the mentally retarded and sexually promiscuous.
Banished to the basement of the Copenhagan police station, Department Q is a cold-case squad made up of three oddballs: Carl Morck, a dyspeptic and comically lovelorn detective; his shadowy sidekick Assad, with his unorthodox sleuthing and clumsy Danish; and Rose, the flighty secretary whose organizational prowess belies a troubled mind. The first three books were real gems, finely tuned stage comedy among the three misfits interwoven with outrageous criminal action and taut pacing.
The fourth book, “The Purity of Vengeance,’’ is written with a different kind of force and seems closer to a political exercise than whodunit entertainment. The comic touch is not as light or fresh, and the crazy cooked-up plots seem tamed by the more outrageous truth that Adler-Olsen bases his story on.
Sprogo is a small Danish island that for a portion of the 1900s hosted a reformatory for young women deemed a threat to society because of their sexual histories; some were sterilized against their will. It seems implausible from just a little time and distance, but eugenics was far from voodoo science in much of Europe and the United States in the early part of the 20th century. More remarkable is that strains of it survived the notoriety of the Nazis, with the Sprogo facility, for example, remaining open until 1959.
The publishing notes for “Purity of Vengeance’’ said that Adler-Olsen’s father, a psychiatrist, briefly worked at Sprogo, and his stories of the harsh hand dealt the women there seem to have profoundly impressed the son.
The main plot follows Nete Hermansen, a wild cub of a farm girl imprisoned at Sprogo at the cruel whim of a creepy doctor named Curt Wad. He leads a secret cell of sympathizers that for decades conducts forced sterilizations and abortions on those they deem unpure.
Wad is so off-putting he would be easy to dismiss as a caricature, except that at the novel’s outset his organization is poised to become a legitimate political party despite its obvious racism and fascism.
Though shifting among three time periods, the book is largely about the retribution Nete schemes against Wad and the others responsible for her harsh circumstances. Though necessarily part of the main plot, Wad’s political arc stands as its own story line within “Purity of Vengeance,’’ and it’s hard not to feel Adler-Olsen has some scores to settle with contemporary Denmark as much as its past.
In pursuing an exposé, Alder-Olsen makes a trade-off. “The Purity of Vengeance’’ lacks the whimsy of his earlier books. Sure there is still plenty of slapstick between the two detectives and amusing pathos as Carl tries to fathom the women in his life.
But there isn’t much of a mystery here; even the way Department Q seems to trip over a thread from Nete’s web of retribution seems more a convenience for the storyteller than any great turn of scene. The side plots that added such dimension to the first three books feel shortchanged in the fourth, and the obligatory race-against-the-clock dénouement feels less urgent than Adler-Olsen’s larger story.
So, read the book anyway. This is Adler-Olsen, after all, one of the best of a very strong field of writers from Scandinavia, and he has certainly earned an indulgence or two from readers. Moreover, if this is his way of broadening, of branching out, keep going. “The Purity of Vengeance’’ is an enjoyable and eye-opening way to learn about the real Scandinavia, a story so outrageous that not even the best mystery writer can make it up.Andrew Caffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.