This is the sixth of the Department Q thrillers, a series which I hope will go on and on for years to come. What is even nicer is that the publishers and publicists are happy to let the merits of the series speak for themselves, without spurious references to other Scandinavian writers.
Department Q is a small team which specialises in the investigation of cold cases. Heading the team is the wonderfully irascible DI Carl Morck, another detective who delights in serial insubordination. That characteristic is singularly helpful as the members of the team are therefore equally likely to question their boss with some frequency. Assad, his assistant has been with him from the start of these thrillers, as something of an intern and now as a fully-fledged member of the team, even if we are still left a bit unsure where this Syrian emigre fits into the Danish Police, or how he came to Denmark in the first place. The team is rounded off by the indomitable Rose who was foisted on Morck when her capacity for plain speaking made her unpopular in almost every other police section. Somehow the team has gelled and, for all idiosyncrasies of its members, has an excellent record of solving the crimes that eluded others. With that reputation comes a considerable degree of autonomy, allowing Morck to effectively determine which dead cases he will investigate and which he will leave in the morgue.
In The Hanging Girl Morck is approached by a provincial detective on the verge of retirement. He is desperate for the Department Q team to investigate an old murder case which has become an obsession for the detective. Morck is uncertain they can add anything to the original investigation and upsets the detective and Rose, by rejecting the invitation. The next day the detective blows his brains out to the horror of those attending his retirement party. Rose succeeds in making Morck feel guilty for the detective’s suicide and gets him to change his mind about reopening the investigation. Thus the team decamps to the Danish island of Bornholm.
The primary murder investigation, some seventeen years previously, concerned a young Jewish girl Alberte Goldschmid who had been found hung over the branch of a tree, apparently the victim of a hit and run driver while out on a bike ride. However, the investigation had quickly come to the conclusion that the death was far from accidental. The young girl was beautiful, talented and had entered the local college not long before, after her family had moved from more cosmopolitan climes. Original interviews with fellow students, together with the further evidence they offer seventeen years on, affirms that Alberte was very popular with the boys, sufficiently so to suggest an element of promiscuity which was very much frowned on at the time. That she was so popular with the boys had a very opposite effect on the girls, one of which temporarily lost her boyfriend to Alberte’s charms while the others lived in perpetual fear of that happening. However, there was never enough evidence to suggest that Alberte had been murdered by either a spurned male student or an aggrieved female rival. Instead the detective had turned his attention to a secret lover the girl had recently discovered, the owner of an old VW microbus.
The Q team reopens the search for this mysterious Romeo and the VW microbus. But pretty soon they have to extend their enquiries. When they attempt to interview the dead detective’s son, they find him dead, an apparent suicide. He has left a short note saying “Sorry Dad”, and a somewhat exotic collection of sado-masochistic gay porn. Though it is not immediately evident what the son was “sorry” for.
Further scrutiny opens up the possibility that the missing Romeo was the leading figure in a religious cult who was known to be as handsome as he was charismatic. With time the team tracks down the cult and finds another community similarly riven by the temptations of the flesh with a few more cases of missing and dead females to occupy Morck and his team.
The Hanging Girl is a clever and enjoyable addition to anyone’s collection of Scandinavian crime fiction. My only reservation is that it again points the finger at obscure religious cults. Whilst these may be less than popularin modern Scandinavian circles, a feeling with which I sympathise fully, it is a focus which is in danger of being overworked by Scandinavian crime writers. Could I suggest they turn their attention to the growth of the far right and the dangers signposted by Larsson, Mankell and Nesbo?