Book review: Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen

by Jussi Adler-Olsen
translated by Kyle Semmel
Penguin, 2012
Department Q #2

Disgrace is the second in the Department Q series that began with the excellent Mercy. It has a different translator, but reads equally well. The basement Department Q consists of Inspector Carl Moerk, a veteran, cynical Copenhagen police detective, whose remit is to follow up and ideally solve cold cases. Despite the piles of such files on his desk, Moerk here decides to investigate one that has been mysteriously left there, even though the double-murder investigation concerned was solved and the criminal still in prison after 20 years.

Moerk, with the not-always smooth assistance of Assad, officially a cleaner, and a new secretary, Rosie, follows up on the clues provided, soon realising that there is a whole swathe of crimes that were probably committed by a group of people, one of whom has been persuaded to take the fall. Readers know that this line of thought is correct because the story of the criminals is told in parallel with that of the current investigation. The crucial link is that of a woman called Kimmie, who is living rough on the streets even though she is a rich heiress. Something happened to Kimmie, originally a member of the evil group, which has caused her to live the life of a fugitive – and there is now a race between the police and the criminals to find her.

Although readable, Disgrace lacks suspense because the reader is told the identity of the criminals from the start. What is more, the male members of the group, whose lives we follow as the book unfolds, are caricatures of badness: they rape, assault, torture and kill people and animals, and invariably behave appallingly, flaunting their inherited wealth. Because they are so relentlessly awful, it is not possible to be involved with them; their role in the book is simply to make the reader hate them and wish for their comeuppance.

The police characters are satisfyingly idiosyncratic; the details of their concerns and interactions are wryly amusing, but in themselves insufficient to maintain interest for the 500 pages of this novel. Several of the personal themes introduced in Mercy are reprised, but not advanced, here.

The strongest parts of the book by far are the descriptions of Kimmie’s life on the streets – a theme, however, that was more compellingly treated in Karin Alvtegen’s excellent (and short!) suspense thriller, Missing. Of the criminals, Kimmie is the most three-dimensional and interesting character, despite an odd obsession with the letter K, though as with the other criminals, we never learn what inspired her to make the awful lifestyle choices that caused her to commit brutal crimes.

I received this book free of charge as part of the Amazon Vine programme. Its original title, incidentally, translates literally as The Pheasant Killers.

Other reviews of Disgrace: Wicked Wonderful Words, and 19 Amazon customer reviews (18 of them awarding the book 4 or 5 out of 5 stars).

My review of Mercy, the first in this series (which, at time of writing, is planned to be a quartet).

Scan Magazine: interview with the author.

26 thoughts on “Book review: Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen

  1. I’m sorry to hear Disgrace is not as strong as Mercy. I won’t be in a hurry to buy it yet, until it becomes cheaper then. But no doubt I’m still planning to read it.

  2. Disappointing to read about Disgrace. I was hoping, as were we all, that it was as good as Mercy. And too bad about all of this text about the criminals, a trait in mysteries which I could live without if it’s more than just a passing reference. I don’t really like to know about them, and do want the mystery of not knowing whodunnit until the denouement.
    Anyway, in reference to Scandinavian crime fiction, I just got a rave review of Dregs, a book, which I loaned to a friend, but have not yet read. She said it’s one of the best of this genre.
    So I’ll be looking forward to reading that one, and will wait until Disgrace hits the library.

  3. Maxine – Thanks for the excellent-as-always review. What a shame though to hear that you were disappointed in it and that it wasn’t as good as Mercy, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I really was looking forward to reading this one *sigh.* Well, I still probably will, but I won’t be in a big hurry…

  4. Thanks, Jose Ignacio, Bernadette and Margot – I too was so much looking forward to this one, as the first had so much potential. Pity he went down the “simplistic villain” route though I can see it will make a commercial film with its lack of subtlety (this one and Mercy are apparently being filmed). Carl, Assad and the new character Rosie are all funny in their own way, and there are some nice little touches, but that isn’t enough without a good crime plot or other attraction.

  5. I’d been looking forward to this one because I loved Mercy when I read it last year, so it’s interesting to hear that you think this one is a weaker novel. (Second novel syndrome, perhaps?) Funnily enough, as soon as you mentioned the living-on-the-streets element of the story, I thought of Missing, which I have also read and very much enjoyed. I’m sure I’ll still get around to reading Disgrace but I won’t rush into it — thanks for your insightful review, Maxine.

    • The living on the streets element was also well done by Stieg Larsson in the second Millennium novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire. But in my opinion Karin A does it the best!

  6. Thanks for the review Maxine. I wonder why we have this trend of plots where we know who the culprit is all along. Are they easier to write I wonder?

    • My theory is that it is for simple-minded readers, ie readers who want fodder to pass the time in a mentally unstimulating way rather than those that like a challenge and a puzzle. The kind of readers who buy “James Patterson” in droves.

      • You might be right Maxine – or for those for whom working out a puzzle is too much like hard work.

  7. I’m not a great fan on plots where the murderer(s) are identified upfront. However it wouldn’t put me off reading a book. I haven’t heard of the writer at all so I will look out for her/him (not sure of the gender).

    • He is a male author, Sarah, and I highly recommend Mercy. It is a refreshing take on the old “captive woman” cliche and also introduces a couple of great cop characters.

  8. I don’t know. I think something more sinister is afoot when people want to read all about horrible people who commit crimes — and spend half of a book doing that, and then they read all about the horrific acts, which I don’t want to read about. I don’t want to know the killer(s)’ point of view nor what they are doing. I want to read an unfurling puzzle with a denouement.
    The reader-friend who just read and loved Dregs read Mercy; she stayed up all night, got nightmares. Then said she loved the book and asked when the next book by Adler-Olsen is coming out. I’m curious to see what she’ll think of this plot style.

    • Disgrace does not dwell too much on the (many) various tortures, killings & animal cruelties, but it leaves the reader in no doubt as to what they all are. “De trop” in my view. Mercy was different, in that the kidnapped woman’s suffering is not dwelled on, but told as part of a narrative describing how she overcame her physical and psychological ordeal, so was done in an empowering way, rather than revelling in it.

  9. Mercy was fine, more than fine. The suspense built up in both parts of the book. A friend and I admired the strength, stamina and inventiveness of the kidnapped woman. She even figured out how to outsmart her captors. She is a brilliant character.
    I’m glad Disgrace doesn’t dwell to much on the violence by the criminals. It’s just that I’m not too fond of spending much time reading about them. I felt the same way about the first book about Alex Morrow in Denise Mina’s new series.

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  13. Hiya,

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Disgrace’ and my feelings are exactly the same as yours. I’m tired of pantomime-villain bad guys, and wanted people more complex and sympathetic. Something of a let-down after ‘Mercy’.

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  16. Ah, I think The Pheasant Killers is a better name, although Kimmie’s life fits Disgrace perfectly.

    Ultimately, I liked Mercy better. The ending for that novel was so suspenseful!

  17. Maxine- I have broken the habit of not reading other reviews before I write mine. I am about three quarters of the way through Disgrace, and have found it extremely disappointing.
    Mercy was brilliant Disgrace is a poor sequel, and in my opinion some the violent descriptions are totally unnecessary.

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