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Danish thriller mines disturbing themes

Books & Poetry

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The facts behind the fiction of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s thriller Guilt add greatly to its unsettling effect.

They relate to an institution on the Danish island of Sprogø, where women considered to be mentally deficient and/or promiscuous were locked up between 1923 and 1961 with the stated aim of preventing them spreading both their loose morals and venereal diseases. It also stopped them having “unwanted” babies.

The long-lasting damage caused by one woman’s experiences on Sprogø is the grist of Danish author Adler-Olsen’s fictional story, which also explores themes such as eugenics and the activities of the far right. It all makes for disturbing but engrossing reading.

The prologue, set in 1985, sees laboratory assistant Nete Rosen wrenched out of her comfortable life with wealthy businessman husband Andreas when an unpleasant encounter rekindles traumatic memories. From here, the tale switches from 1987 to the present (2010), when investigator Carl Mørck and his two rather unlikely assistants – Eastern European hothead Assad and the emotionally unstable Rose – are investigating a cold case involving a series of mysterious disappearances.

Adding further complexity to the novel is the fact that the perspective shifts between three characters: Nete, Carl and the repugnant Dr Curt Wad, who is the driving force behind both an underground far-right movement called The Cause and its public political arm The Purity Party, which is close to winning a seat in the Danish Parliament.

With so many facets, an intriguing mystery and a dark undercurrent inspired by actual events, Guilt is an excellent read, up there with the best contemporary Scandinavian thrillers.

Adler-Olsen – winner of the Glass Key Award for Scandinavian crime novelists and also of Denmark’s Golden Laurels literary prize – has drawn inspiration from contemporary issues in his country, such as immigration and the rise of the far right, as well as looking to Denmark’s past. Interestingly, given the Sprogø aspect of this story, his bio notes that he is the son of a psychiatrist.

Guilt is the fourth novel in his Department Q series featuring Carl Mørck and will likely leave new readers eager to find Adler-Olsen’s earlier titles. A film adaptation of one of those novels, The Keeper of Lost Causes, will premiere at Adelaide’s Palace Nova Eastend cinemas on July 31 as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival.

Guilt, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is published by Penguin, $19.99.

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