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A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH, the third volume in Jussi Adler-Olsen's "Department Q" crime novels, starts out with one of the oldest clichés: a bottle with a message in it has washed up in Scotland, where it has languished on a windowsill for years. When it is finally opened and partially deciphered, it is revealed to be a 1996 cry for help written in Danish in blood. And so the mostly indecipherable, faded text and bottle are shipped off to Detective Carl Mørck and his colorful assistants in Department Q of the Copenhagen Police Department. Though the prickly secretary Rose has gone out on extended sick leave, her twin sister Yrsa subs for her and works relentlessly on filling in the missing letters of this old cry for help from a boy, who says he and his brother were kidnapped and held for ransom, somewhere near a body of water.
While Yrsa wrestles with the fragment, Carl and his sidekick Assad, a Syrian refugee, tackle some other crimes, including a series of arson sites, where dead bodies have been found. The curious detail is that the men were dead before the fires burnt their corpses, and all the bodies have a deformed bone in their pinkies.
A parallel narrative concerns a woman named Mia, who is married to a successful but mysterious businessman, who disappears on long trips while he leaves her alone with her infant son and with a growing sense of isolation from the outside world. Mia is developing an unhealthy curiosity about her husband's affairs - could he really be off spying for the Danish government as he claims? - and a romantic interest in one of her neighbors. The second narrative is germane to the main plot, but the subplot about the arson seems to add a lot of pages/hours to this already long story without increasing any interest. It serves, of course, to emphasize Department Q's value to the force and the fact that the police force must hang onto Carl, but we know that this curmudgeonly cop is here to stay.
Finally, Carl, Yrsa, and Assad decode the message and decide that it is not a prank. They track down one of the original kidnap victims, now living in Norway, where the family belongs to Jehovah's Witnesses. Carl determines that other offspring of religious families might be in danger, too, and that a kidnapper did not create such an elaborate scheme for a relatively modest ransom demand in order to stop at only one crime. Carl has Yrsa track down as many minority religious groups as possible to see whether any children have mysteriously disappeared or been suddenly banished by their parents. As a result, he comes upon one group that worships the "Mother of God," from which two of the children and both parents are missing. Carl knows that he must find them all quickly.
The narratives converge at this point. Without giving away important details, it can be said that there are many chases, false leads, dead ends, narrow misses, and much frenzy in the search for the missing children and the clever kidnapper. As usual, Assad, the untrained assistant with an endless bag of unusual tricks and a sharp intellect, is as integral to the story as the ever-grumpy but dogged Carl. As with THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES and THE ABSENT ONE, the two previous volumes in this series, Adler-Olsen's generally tight writing and clever crafting of characters will keep the listener glued to the tale.
Each volume of the Department Q series has been narrated by a different performer. I'm not sure why this is so because it is a good strategy to let one narrator become the identifiable voice of Carl Mørck since the series is sure to continue for many additional volumes. Each performer has been excellent so far. But in any case, a listener can never go wrong with Graeme Malcolm, one of my favorite audio stars. Malcolm always demonstrates great range for his characters. Here, he also masters foreign words in a way that suggests he is a fluent speaker of Danish. In short, he is an audio wizard. For a crime story of this complexity, in which there are three primary narrators - Carl, Mia, and the criminal mastermind himself - Malcolm adopts not only different voices but slightly different paces and rhythms to demonstrate, for instance, Carl's lingering depression or Mia's anxiety. Malcolm has made many a fair book tolerable so listeners will find great delight in the fact that he has taken on Department Q, a good tale that he makes riveting. Let's hope he stays for a while in the basement of police headquarters with Carl and his expanding crew of delightful misfits.
§ Karla Jay is a legally blind audio book addict, who lives in New York City, where she is Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies at Pace University.
Reviewed by Karla Jay, June 2013
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