Review: ‘Disgrace’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Disgrace is the first book I’m reviewing for Penguin Books’ Google+ proof group. It wasn’t the kind of book that I would normally choose, so I was keen to have it to review, and as far as possible I’m going to keep this post spoiler-free. I hadn’t read any of Adler-Olsen’s work before, but I am a casual fan of the crime drama. This one was interesting – it gave away a lot of information, littering clues and potential clues around and then playing with different ways of weaving them together, which I thought worked better than the standard ‘eking out a clue at a time’ formula.

I felt like I missed out on a little because it was the second book of a series, and I would have been more invested if I’d known the main character better. I did like the cranky protagonist and his misfit team – they were very well characterised. I particularly liked the verbal tics of the Syrian team-member, and the black humour in the police-team scenes was a great counterpoint to the rest of the novel, which was bleak. Not that I expect crime dramas to be cheery, but this one was especially dark. The ‘woman with a secret’ was also an interesting character – pathetic, sympathetic and utterly repellent all at once, and her unstable sanity was well presented: no cod psychology or pseudo-diagnoses, just simply and effectively experienced by the reader.

There were a couple of moments I was unsure of – Disgrace was more violent than I expected, and I found the violence towards the female body and the numerous rapes difficult to process. I did have to skip a few particularly brutal pages. There were also a few moments of plot where some pretty unlikely things happened, but then, that’s what happens in literature anywhere, so it’s not really a criticism. It was still compelling, and the psychopathy of the antagonists was well-done – not overstated or melodramatic, but in fact based on a consistent series of incidents that were psychologically coherent, rather than any kind of dramatic backstory reveal or anything.  I also wasn’t entirely clear on why the novel was called Disgrace, because it didn’t particularly seem to be about disgrace, just the exposure of a horrible group of people who had done horrible things to one another and to others, but that’s just me and my creative-writing-tutoring brain bothering away at the little details.

Overall, a very interesting book – very bleak, very bitter, but with the right notes of hope and progress at the end. The choice of giving so difficult a character as Kimmie such a leading role worked very well, and the denouement was a fine show of Chekhov’s gunmanship, bringing together a lot of elements in a way that wasn’t quite what I anticipated.

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