By Nia Kajastie | Photo: Phillip Drago Jørgensen
After Marklund, Mankell, Larsson, Nesbø and The Killing comes Jussi Adler-Olsen. With the UK release of Mercy, his first novel in the Department Q series, Danish Adler-Olsen takes on the thriller genre, with a good dose of dark and bitter characters, a twisted crime case and a pinch of humour.
With Scandinavian crime stories, both on paper and on the screen, still attracting the world’s attention, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s first novel published in English could not come at a more opportune time. However, it is not just sheer luck or a savvy publisher that has opened these doors for him, as his books have already been immense hits in Denmark and Germany. He also took home the Glass Key award in 2010 (among other accolades), which has previously been awarded to the aforementioned Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
Adler-Olsen tells us how he did not intentionally seek out a popular genre or a way to gain fame, nor did he set out to write crime stories either. “When I started writing, I was more or less financially independent, so instead of writing for the money, I started writing for the reader.”
Jussi Adler-Olsen has indeed already dabbled in many a career line, including as a comic book shop owner, magazine editor and publisher, so life experiences and funds are not necessarily in short supply. And his current occupation certainly suits his lifestyle: “What other job can you do in your pyjamas from your own home?” he laughs. “It’s a free form of living that suits me. After working extremely hard in my job as a publisher, I’m happy to stay home and see my son grow up. My father told me that I have so many talents, and I should make use of them all on my own terms. He was so right.”
Lessons in human nature
Born in 1950, as the youngest of four children, Jussi Adler-Olsen was introduced to the many sides of the human psyche from a very young age on, as he grew up on the grounds of different Danish mental institutions, where his father worked as a psychiatrist. He was in direct contact with some of the patients and witnessed both the good and evil in them, grasping that every human is capable of both.
Even as a young boy, Adler-Olsen showed an avid skill for storytelling. “As a boy scout, a friend and I once spent a week in a lookout tower, and to pass the time we would tell each other stories. While he told me stories by Edgar Allan Poe, I made up my own. I knew how to make him scared as well as feel empathy by telling stories that could happen in real life,” he says.
He went on to study medicine, sociology, politics and film. “While studying film at university, I learnt a lot about point of view, suspense and all the elements of an exciting story.” Even though Adler-Olsen did not return to the “storytelling” until later in his life, he was still conscious of the fact that he could write. At 30 years-old, he spent some time in the Netherlands with his wife and wrote his first novel, which was, however, never published. But Adler-Olsen had found out what he needed to: whenever he was ready, he would be able to settle down as a writer.
Taking on the thriller
Although now listed among famous Scandinavian crime writers, it was not Jussi Adler-Olsen’s intention to become one. “Thriller stories and movies interest me a lot, as well as classical stories like The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I think the thriller has a lot in common with the classical, international, political, big and exciting stories. It doesn’t necessarily have to be crime,” he explains. His first novels were in fact more straight-forward thrillers, whereas the Department Q series, which currently consists of four novels, has taken him more into the crime territory.
In the first book in the series, Mercy, Adler-Olsen introduces us to his anti-hero Carl Mørck, a defeated, disillusioned and unstable homicide detective, who is struggling to cope with a shooting incident that left one of his colleagues dead and the other one paralysed. He is relegated to the basement to take care of Department Q, which is supposed to handle “cases of special focus”. Together with his enthusiastic assistant Assad, Mørck stumbles upon the case of missing politician Merete Lynggaard, which puts them on the track of a twisted criminal with a gruesome plan.
Although the premise is dark with an air of despair, Adler-Olsen has still managed to infuse humour into his story, for example, through Mørck’s “sidekick” Assad. “Without humour, there is no story for me,” Adler-Olsen asserts. Assad also acts as a catalyst for Mørck’s character, who needs someone to keep him going, as he has almost given up on life. As the series continues, Mørck gains a second assistant in Rose, who will in turn help move along the relationship between Mørck and Assad.
With four books already out, Adler-Olsen still has many a story to tell about Department Q. “I have to finish Carl, Assad and Rose’s stories, maybe in 9, 10 or 11 books. Perhaps 10.5,” he laughs. “But I could fill 20 books with all the cases I have for Department Q.” So it remains to see how many stories readers can actually still await.
And for those interested in seeing Carl Mørck on the big or small screen, Adler-Olsen says there are three different treatments in talks: firstly, one movie for each book similar to the Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s novels; secondly, a local German version; and thirdly, an American TV series.
Department Q series in English:
Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen – 12 May 2011, Michael Joseph
Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen – 21 June 2012, Michael Joseph
For more information, please visit: www.jussiadlerolsen.dk