I just finished reading THE ABSENT ONE, and I am looking over my shoulder. Those of you who read THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES, the first of the Department Q novels, know what I’m talking about. Jussi Adler-Olsen's latest is as dark and disturbing a book as you will likely find in these closing days of summer. For those unfamiliar with the author and Department Q, you have a chilling police procedural awaiting you.
"THE ABSENT ONE will remind you of that group of kids from school who everyone tried to avoid, and make you wonder where they are.... And it also will cause you to put Adler-Olsen on the top of your must-read list in indelible ink. You cannot miss this one."
THE ABSENT ONE begins with a suspenseful and mysterious vignette before getting down to familiar tacks. Carl Mørck, the difficult but driven head of Department Q, has just returned from vacation when he's confronted with a file that shouldn’t be on his desk. Department Q started as a department of one in the basement of the Copenhagen Police headquarters, and Mørck is tasked with investigating the coldest of cold cases. The file concerns the murders of a brother and sister from over a decade ago. The crime had been solved, and there was a conviction and incarceration. So how did the file come into Mørck's possession, and why is he almost immediately advised to let the case be?
Mørck, as he points out himself, is a contrarian: if told to do something, he will do the direct opposite. And indeed he does; following the most slender of threads, he discovers that the convicted killer was part of a group of boarding school friends who have followed varied paths. One is dead as the result of a hunting accident. Three went on to become very successful in fashion, plastic surgery and financial investing. And the last, a woman named Kimmie, is living on the streets of Copenhagen. She is quite mentally unbalanced and extremely dangerous for more reasons than one might ordinarily expect. Her friends (make that her former friends) from school are desperately trying to locate her before she finds them.
It turns out that the group is engaged in a series of dastardly acts that, if ever they were brought to light, would ruin the reputations and successful lives of the designer, doctor and stockbroker, who still engage in these despicable activities. Their fears of Kimmie are well-founded, and her madness is well-earned, bought and paid for with what we learn is a violent, bitter and shocking coin. Mørck follows a tiny morsel of a clue to its illogical conclusion, discovers why he has been warned off of the already-solved case (which was not entirely solved at all), and is trying to find Kimmie himself while attempting to get the goods on her former friends. Meanwhile, Kimmie slowly but surely begins taking the revenge that she has sought for so long.
Mørck is a fascinating character. His personal life is one of the messiest you are likely to encounter in fiction: his wife is long-gone, leaving him stuck with a worse than worthless stepson. Professionally, Mørck is difficult to work with, a task that his eternally cheerful and loyal yet enigmatic assistant, Assad, seems up to meeting and even exceeding, to his occasional appreciation. Mørck is counterbalanced nicely here by the villains of the piece, who were raised on a diet of group viewings of the film A Clockwork Orange and have used it as a model for their (secret) lives.
THE ABSENT ONE will remind you of that group of kids from school who everyone tried to avoid, and make you wonder where they are. Far, far away, hopefully. And it also will cause you to put Adler-Olsen on the top of your must-read list in indelible ink. You cannot miss this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 24, 2012