THE HANGING GIRL by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Hanging Girl (Department Q Series #6)

(the site where most of the novel takes place)

In his sixth installment of the adventures of Department Q, Jussi Adler-Olsen presents his main protagonist in the series, the incorrigible detective, Carl Morck with a very unusual case.  The Hanging Girl centers around the obsession of Sergeant Christian Haberstaat, a detective on the island of Borholm in Denmark.  It seems that almost two decades ago, Haberstaat found the body of a young lady, hanging from a tree branch, in what appeared to be a hit and run accident.  Haberstaat could not accept that outcome and spent years investigating what he knew was murder, sacrificing his own family and ending his marriage.  Right before his retirement party Haberstaat reached out to Morck, a former colleague, for help leaving the message, “Department Q was his last hope,” which Morck ignored.  At the retirement party, Haberstaat, again obsessed about the long forgotten murder, took out a revolver and committed suicide.  Morck, Rose, and Assad, his trusted colleagues in Department Q head to the island of Bornholm to investigate the original accident and determine whether in fact Haberstaat’s conclusion was accurate.  Upon arriving in Bornholm a number of important things occur.  First, the police really do not want to revisit the case, second, Haberstaat’s son, now thirty-five years old commits suicide, and thirdly, his ex-wife is still bitter and blames her ex-husband for her ruined life.  Once Adler-Olsen has set the stage for the novel, the plot line moves smoothly and immediately catches the interest of the reader as all the previous Department Q novels have done.

Adler-Olsen also develops a parallel plot that involves a cult figure named Atu Abanshamash Dumuzi who heads a guru type of spiritual school called the Nature Absorption Academy that recruit’s both woman, and to a lesser extent men.  One in particular emerges as very important, Wanda Phinn, a divorced former Jamaican long distance runner who was living in London and is recruited by Atu to come live on the island of Oland in Sweden.  It turns out that another woman, Pirjo, who has been working with Atu for twenty years and is very protective of him, creates an environment where any woman who she deems a threat to her position will encounter grave difficulties.

As the story evolves, Adler-Olsen integrates the latest member of Department Q, Gordon into the mix of those trying to figure out what happened to the victim that Haberstaat had tried to uncover for so many years.  Gordon, according to Morck was thrust on the group by the new Chief of Homicide, Lars Bjorn, a former colleague that Morck had clashed with many times in the past and who exiled Department Q’s offices into the basement of Police Headquarters.  It is interesting to speculate about the murder victim, Alberta Goldschmid, who grew up as an orthodox Jew, limited by a kosher diet and strict parents.  Alberta was a beautiful young lady who drew the attention of all the boys at the Folk High School, creating extreme jealousy and hatred on the part of numerous girls toward her.  It is interesting how Adler-Olsen is able to take the two major strands of the novel and bring them together.  We witness good police work, an exploration of the word of the occult, and Morck’s personal demons all interacting.

The Hanging Girl, though a strong novel in of itself, it does not measure up to Adler-Olsen’s previous work.  For example, the storyline is too drawn out.  The novel starts out strong by drawing the reader in and about a third of the way, the author seems to get bogged down in certain details that become monotonous.  However, Adler-Olsen recovers to provide a fascinating ending that will keep the reader glued to the narrative for the last fifty pages of the book.  The inclusion of the new member of the team, Gordon is not very consequential and does not bring anything to the table.  Lastly, Adler-Olsen repeatedly returns to aspects of previous novels in the series without providing enough background for the reader to understand.  It would have helped if Adler-Olsen would have provided a little more information, particularly when he tries to integrate Morck’s relations with his ex-wife and girlfriends, the shooting that took place seven years earlier that resulted in paralyzing his colleague and his own injury, and why his relationship with Lars Bjorn is so poor.

On a more positive note, Adler-Olsen continues to develop the character of Assad in a very meaningful way.  We learn further about his past life as a member of the secret police in Syria, and his character is still used as a vehicle to quash stereotypes concerning the Muslim world, including his past family life.  The growth of his relationship with Morck is also poignant, and their constant banter back and forth is a highlight of the book.  Adler-Olsen leaves us a nugget concerning Assad in that his real name might be “Said,” and this could be a building block for future novels.  Though the novel is somewhat strong in its own case, it has certain limitations, and does not measure up to the previous entries in the series.  One caveat, if you are a fan of Adler-Olsen, as I am, you will give him a pass, and hopefully when book number seven appears in the series it will return to its usual quality.

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