Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Penguin, RRP $40, ISBN9780718156886, Available now.
Ah, Scandinavia. Suddenly it’s the deep dark heart of crime, the seedy underbelly of …um, Northern Europe? I have to confess the whole Scandinavian crime she-bang has passed me by (unless you count Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which it seems people don’t – shame as it’s brilliant) – I haven’t read any Stieg Larsson because, quite frankly, I am contrary and if everyone else reads it that’s a good reason for me not to (though now I’m reviewing seriously my contrariness has to take second place).
Mercy follows Carl Mørck, one of crime’s great archetypes – the world-weary homicide detective transferred to a new department where he can’t rub too many people up the wrong way. He’s investigating unsolved crimes, including the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard – a Danish politician who’s been missing for five years. Mørck’s investigation takes him into political circles and, eventually, a fairly ingenious evil-mastermindy type crime.
So, Mercy has a great big “Guaranteed Great Read” printed so not-sticker slap bang on the front cover. Oh dear. Mercy isn’t a great read. It’s an okay read but it’s not great. It takes far too long to get going, it has a questionable portrayal of a secondary character and some odd side plot points that seem to only be there for character exposition but have all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer (like my metaphors, clearly).
It highlights an integral problem with reading books in translation – I have no idea if these issues are exacerbated by a bad translation.¹ The good news is, however, that I did eventually get drawn in by the story and I did feel like the characterisations seem to improve significantly as the book went on.
But I had a real issue with the initial characterisation of Mørck’s assistant Assad – a Muslim immigrant to Denmark. Sure, it could be argued that Adler-Olsen is using Mørck’s initial disdain of Assad as a comment on many European’s attitudes towards immigrants – an increasingly large problem in many parts of Europe, including Scandinavia. But initially it just all feels too crude to be effective.
In many ways then Mercy is almost a book of two halves. The first half is problematic and verging on not-worth-continuing, the second half is intriguing and has characters that have impact. Overall that just doesn’t make for greatness.
¹Am I the only reader to have vague problems with reading books in translation? It’s a bit like watching movies in translation – I only speak English fluently and from what I’ve been told by people who do speak other languages, the translations are generally missing a significant amount. It’s not that I don’t think publishers do their best to get the best translation, it’s just I wonder if any idea of true or complete translation is by it’s very nature inherently imposssible.