The white-dude detective of Nordic bestsellers bears a burden other crime-solvers don’t. Besides his personal troubles — he’s usually a sauced mope estranged from his family — and the challenges of his case-cracking and victim-saving, he is also called upon to reassure readers that the rottenness he sees each day does not mean doom for the project of social democracy. The rapes, murders, and abductions he investigates always connect, in some way, to failures within the systems that shape northern Euro life. A killer-to-be was abused for a decade as a child in foster care; the graduates of the fancy-pantsiest of prep schools exploit their wealth and power to cover up crimes against the broke. The white detective, like governments and their social programs, carries on trying to sort it, as dogged as he is overmatched. He’s imperfect as a father or husband and he hates the changing times, but he’s reassuring as a crusading force: He’s going to save everyone that he can.
But he can’t save them all. All safety nets are porous. Perhaps it’s easier to admit this in the ripe ridiculousness of crime fiction, where the holes people slip through aren’t indifferent. Here, innocents get dropped into the secret-door bondage lairs of billionaires, or into the elaborate pressurized punishment chamber at the center of The Keeper of Lost Causes, the first novel and film in the enormously popular Department Q series. Three Department Q films have already broken box-office records in Denmark; in the states, IFC is releasing them in a few theaters and on demand. Together, the trilogy plays like a season of strong, involving genre television, with occasional moments of transcendent artistry, especially in the third entry, Hans Petter Moland’s A Conspiracy of Faith.
The detective is brooding Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a tombstone in a sharp blue suit, demoted from detective to closing cold cases in a basement. His old files lead to fresh crimes, of course, and by the end of film one, the brisk and involving The Keeper of Lost Causes (directed by Mikkel Nørgaard), Mørck’s facing off with a psychopath who, as always, has reasons for his fantastically improbable scheme — and, apparently, a limitless budget and incurious neighbors. It’s no spoiler to say that that villain briefly bests Mørck, because Mørck has a partner, and the Department Q films and novels hold strictly to form: If a cop hero falters, the cop hero’s partner will bust in from out of nowhere, just when needed most.
Actually, that partner is needed most all throughout the series. He’s Assad (Fares Fares), a warm and wry Muslim man, whose presence is the antacid for Department Q’s heartburn. The novels, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, find time for cross-cultural comedy and lesson-learning: Mørck notes Assad’s “hairy mitt” when first shaking his hand and then assumes the worst of the immigrant’s language and detective skills. The Keeper of Lost Causes and its lesser sequel, The Absent One, are too thick with backstory and plot twists to examine this relationship — a procedural’s gottta keep proceeding. But that might be for the best: You can see, on Mørck’s face, that he knows that guys like him must learn to accept Muslims as part of everyday Nordic life. His slow, silent thaw is the most moving thing in the films. If the systems he represents have a chance to survive, he must work with Assad.
The men finally speak, some, in the strongest of the movies, A Conspiracy of Faith. Director Moland lays off the uncertain flashback structure that makes The Absent One a slog — that film blows so much time with the villains and the victims that the detectives seem secondary. Moland understands that what we want from detective fiction is time with the detectives, and so he gives us Mørck and Assad, cruising a highway past fields and windmills, discussing questions of faith. “We’re obviously dealing with retards,” Mørck growls, speaking of members of a Christian sect who are covering up the abduction of their own children. He calls belief “a bad habit, like smoke and homosexuality.”
For almost four hours of film, Assad has mostly put up with Mørck, his face worn and pained. In this case, he argues, pitting his secularized belief against the hero’s pitiless atheism. The discussion, like the film, is more rich and resonant than anything in True Detective ever was. It even adds some heft to the climactic speech in which the villain wastes time probing the hero with philosophical quandaries rather than, like, running away and covering his tracks.