After leading us down the garden path and round the mulberry bush for several Department Q novels, Jussi Adler-Olsen finally pulls all the threads together in this absurdly clever and extremely convoluted investigation. Finally we discover what’s been going on with the detective’s assistant, Rose, for all these years… but not at the expense of the central story. The standalone narrative is the central focus of the book – and what a ripping story it is, full of social observation and truly credible middle-class murder.
I must admit that I’d not bothered with a couple of the more recent Dept Q books, as I’d become frustrated with the balance between ‘story’ and ‘soap-opera’. The focus had shifted from the original raison d’etre of solving the most worthy cold cases using interesting investigative techniques. The original team of two mismatched detectives got flabby, adding increasingly odd assistants to the ensemble as well as a growing number of domestic relationships to complicate Carl Mørck’s private life. It felt like each novel needed at least 500 pages just to run through the regular routines. The story was being submerged under domestic strife and the chaotic politics of police HQ… so I took a break.
The Scarred Woman was exactly the right moment for me to pick up the threads again, because here Adler-Olsen not only delivers payoff for all that build-up, but he integrates it into a superbly constructed multi-layered mystery. The story somehow encompasses a Nazi SS war criminal and his equally reprehensible relatives; a vengeful social worker determined to punish those worthless work-shy air-head claimants who blatantly sponge off an over-generous welfare system; a trio of low-life ladies who graduate from sex with ‘sugar daddies’ to armed robbery to maybe a murder or three. And expertly incorporated into this compelling blend of deceit and dishonesty there’s an older murder to be revealed: the death of a pitiless bully whose victim has struggled to hold onto her sanity ever since…
Rather wonderfully, Adler-Olsen gets to grips with the actual mechanics of committing a crime. His middle-aged, exceedingly average ‘grey woman’ educates herself in how to steal a car, how to silence a gun using household items, how to cover her tracks. He brilliantly brings not one but five female characters to life and sets them running on intersecting tracks – anticipating the inevitable collision is both delicious and gripping.
Nor does he forget his regular cast, so both Hardy and Assad get to play their parts. Assad as ever acts as a comic foil and can be relied upon for a good camel parable just when you need one… but he is also the fount of secret wisdom straight from spook-central. Some day I’d hope to read a standalone Assad story, one which reveals rather more about the shadowy background to this international man of mystery.
Because there’s no doubt that Olsen has re-engaged my interest with this Department Q thriller. The final half-dozen chapters are all-engrossing and the payoff is nigh-on perfect. I’ll be back for more…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler Olsen is available in various formats
If you’ve not read all of the previous Department Q cold-case thrillers, check out our handy-dandy insider’s guide…