Jussi Adler-Olsen is either a crack mystery writer with a comic’s touch, or a comedian with a sense of the macabre. The question isn’t entirely academic, as being an ardent fan of the Danish writer’s Detective Carl Morck series poses some practical challenges: Do you rave about the funny interplay among the eccentric Morck, a clever sad-sack of a fellow, and his two odd-ball assistants? Or do you marvel at the outlandish contortions to which Adler-Olsen subjects his plots, with crimes so cruel they can’t possibly stand credulity?
You should find yourself doing both at the conclusion of “A Conspiracy of Faith,” the third novel in Adler-Olsen’s series about Department Q, the quirky cold case squad of Copenhagen police department. It’s a talker.
The main plot concerns a professional kidnapper who preys on families in Denmark’s austere religious sects, exploiting their reclusive nature to ransom two siblings at a time without fear of the police finding out. The plot kicks off with a tall order: One of two kidnapped brothers stowed in a waterside hut sends out the proverbial message in a bottle, an urgent plea written in blood. Bobbing on the waves for years, it eventually washes ashore in Scotland, badly decayed and with one word legible: Help.
Eventually fobbed off on Department Q, the message becomes a puzzle Morck’s assistants cannot ignore. They are Assad, a mysterious Syrian originally assigned to Morck’s basement recluse as a janitor, who plays straight man with devastating deadpan; and Rose, a loopy secretary who may look like a young Cyndi Lauper but wears another guise in this episode, too.
As his assistants piece together the fading message, Morck busies himself contemplating the frayed edges of his life. Farmed out to a dead-end job after a shooting that left one partner dead and the other paralyzed, Morck is simultaneously battling personal guilt, contempt for his lesser detectives, and a false disinterest in cold cases that defy solving. Oh, and there’s also his ongoing lust for the female police psychologist who is supposed to be helping Morck work through his issues.
If all that sounds ripe for pathos, it really isn’t. The wiseacre Morck is as much the butt of Adler-Olsen’s wry deprecations as anyone else. Assad, meanwhile, is a terrific character and it says something about Adler-Olsen’s discipline that he parses out the Syrian’s vague past in small dollops.
And since this is a Scandinavian mystery, the crime — and the solving of it — reach truly outlandish proportions. By the time the police are on the scene the kidnapper is on to another job, a prosperous family with a weak father who would pay up and keep quiet.
What the kidnapper doesn’t reckon is that the women be brings into his orbit will contribute to his undoing as much as the wily Morck. For one, his wife tires of his scary secretive ways, and sets in motion an important subplot by snooping among his belongings and flirting with a stranger. Another is the mother of the kidnapped children, who breaks free of her oppressive culture and becomes his huntress, aided by a woman in the local village who he picked up and then scorned. For great stretches of the plot Morck and his comedy team step back in favor of a more conventional drama led by the two women, and their chase of the kidnapper would make a Hollywood action producer salivate.
There are other subplots at work that Adler-Olsen somehow manages to juggle, too. But what his long-times readers will most come to appreciate from “Conspiracy” is how Adler-Olsen begins to drop hints about Morck — and Assad too — and the events that brought them to this ostracized post in the basement.
Like the frayed script in the bottle, these clues emerge slowly, fleetingly, but enough so to tease hungry fans into following this great mystery series onto its next book.
Andrew Caffrey can be reached at Caffrey@globe.com.