Life empty with The Killing over? Fear not...

May 16, 2011

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s photograph collection is unique. An everyday chronicle of a happy family life in 1950s Denmark, with the odd glimpse into the other side of his childhood where he lived in a series of remote mental hospitals where his father worked as a psychiatrist, and murderers were his friends.
There he is, a small, wiry boy, posing with his scout group in front of a suburban home in Copenhagen. Then he appears in a photo taken by his father, standing alone on a ferry looking back to the comfortable city life they are leaving behind. Now we see a party of nurses in their starched white uniforms. Finally there is a photo of a man on a hospital bed, wearing a red tie and buttoned-up waistcoat, with wires protruding from his head. The man stares expressionlessly up at the lens while Jussi, a little boy with a new box camera, captures him at the moment that the nurses turn the dial to administer an electric shock.

Almost 60 years later, Adler-Olsen has become one of Europe’s top thriller writers, and the men and women he befriended in the mental institutions of his childhood form the basis for the characters in his novels. In the tradition of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, Adler-Olsen is the new “it” boy of Nordic noir — and Mercy, the first in his Department Q series to be published in the UK, offers a heady dose of Danish detective work for those suffering withdrawals from the TV drama, The Killing.

“He was a nice little killer,” Adler-Olsen says of the hospital patient who became the model for his hero, Detective Carl Morck. In his books Morck is the sole member of the Copenhagen cold case review team; a disaffected, emotionally unstable policeman relegated to working in the same basement in police headquarters where the Gestapo once conducted interrogations. Adler-Olsen’s photos show the real Carl Morck (now deceased) in middle age, smiling in a grey hospital uniform — an ordinary Dane who snapped one day and murdered his wife. Adler-Olsen knew him as the man who brought the hospital staff their food. One day he found a small grey kitten, and the murderer and the little boy cared for it together. But did Adler-Olsen know that he was mad? “Oh, yes.”

The madness and murders of the world were the shadows that stalked an otherwise idyllic childhood, and through friendships with men such as Morck, Adler-Olsen became fascinated with the tension between good and evil. A tension that existed not only in the patients, but also in the hospital staff — and in the country as a whole.

On a rain-lashed afternoon he is revisiting a mental hospital where he lived for several years as a boy. At that time his father was still a junior psychiatrist, and he shakes his head when he remembers the abuse of power wielded by senior doctors. “This is the pond where some of the patients used to throw themselves in and drown,” he says. The house where the Olsens lived looks out across the fjord towards the church where the kings and queens of Denmark are buried, but the hospital itself is a rambling Victorian institution, suggestive of the Gothic horror that creeps into Adler-Olsen’s writing.

Before the advent of effective drugs in the mid 1950s, patients ran around in “screaming cages” on the lawn. Jussi’s father sent him out into the woods to look for escaped patients, and he once found one hanging from a tree. “That’s the house where the women were,” Adler-Olsen says pointing to one small building, set apart. He hated the women’s house, he says, because they scratched their faces until they bled: “The men never did that.”

Sometimes he watched the nurses performing electric shocks, sometimes he even lay on the roof and watched the doctors perform autopsies. As the son of a doctor, the anatomy of death and mental illness held less fear for him, and for many of the patients, than the harshness of life in postwar Europe. Adler-Olsen translated his experiences into his first thriller The Alphabet House, which featured “simulants” — patients who had recovered, but pretended to be insane to remain in the hospital. Outside in the normal world they would have struggled to survive. “In the hospital they had hot food, parties, cinema once a week, even television.”

Another book tells the story of the sane young women who were put away on a remote Danish island for engaging in promiscuous sex. He says: “We used to pass that island on the ferry, and my father pointed to it and said ‘one day I will tell you that story’.”

Adler-Olsen’s father has been dead for 12 years but his presence is everywhere — the biggest influence on his son’s life and career. Henry Olsen was an enlightened doctor who became a pre-eminent psychiatrist, writing widely on sexuality, and treating mental-health conditions in the elderly.
Some of his methods were unorthodox, to say the least. Adler-Olsen recalls summer outings where his father would depart for trips to the coast with a group of patients. On one outing several got lost, and some never returned. “Can you imagine that happening today?” he asks. “Imagine the newspaper headlines!”

As the youngest of four children, and the only boy, it might be expected that Adler-Olsen bore the full weight of his father’s hopes, “but he told me he had no expectations of me. I had many talents, and I should fulfil them as I wanted to.” His father died shortly before the publication of his breakthrough novel, but Adler-Olsen sits at the computer every day and puts his father’s hat on before he starts to write.

Father and son were driven men, yet Adler-Olsen abandoned medical school after seeing fellow students hanging their bags and coats on the hands of corpses, and began an alternative career as the owner of a successful chain of comic-book shops, and then a publishing house.

In person he is open, friendly and down to earth. He is also disciplined and controlled. A talented musician, he gave up the 1970s music scene because he didn’t like drugs, and ran the Danish peace movement with cool efficiency. All the crockery and ornaments in the Olsen’s neat suburban home is turned to precisely the same angle. Out of madness, comes order.

Above all, Adler-Olsen says that his father told him he was a “lucky guy”. Lucky to be married to a great woman, his wife Hanne, and lucky to have a son late in life after they’d given up hope. Lucky to be published in English at the peak of demand for Scandinavian crime, and lucky as well to be a Danish writer just as readers have become saturated with solemn Swedish detectives. Lucky, he knows, to be following in the wake of The Killing — which, he adds, he’s never watched.

Adler-Olsen says that his Department Q series is planned as a sequence of novels that explore unpalatable truths.
His writing is “more humorous, more Gothic, and more European” than Swedish counterparts, according to the Politiken critic, Bo Tao Michaelis. And while Swedish writers blame crime on social breakdown, and seek salvation from the state, Adler-Olsen grapples with more mainstream European experiences; vigilantism, free-market economics and immigration.
His hallmark may be tense plotting, nerve-racking timing, and lots of action — but along the way he’s not afraid of breaking apart cosy Danish notions of openness and tolerance.

On the way back home, Adler-Olsen ponders a future book he wants to write. The landscape is grey and bleak, and so is the subject matter. German refugees flooded into Denmark at the end of the Second World War, and Olsen recalls a childhood incident when his father went to treat some refugee children suffering from dysentery — but was stopped from doing so by the police. In the years after the war the Danish Government banned medical treatment for German refugees, and in the course of a few years, 18,000 died. But Adler-Olsen has found that this is not a popular topic. Like the simulant patients in the mental institutions of his childhood, people prefer to remain in the dark.

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