Danish detective Carl Morck is physically and psychologically damaged after an attempted arrest resulted in the death of one of his partners and the paralysis of another. The homicide squad doesn't want to work with the difficult detective so he's 'promoted' to head of Department Q, which is tasked with looking into cold cases from all over Denmark. Department Q is given a bare bones space in the cluttered basement and Carl is given one employee - Syrian immigrant Assad - whos's officially a sort of janitor. Assad, however, turns out to be a man of many talents and a gifted detective. In fact he's one of the most amusing and interesting characters in the story.
After futzing around for weeks drinking coffee, goofing off, and ignoring the cold case files on his desk Carl is forced to show some progress in his investigations. Thus he decides to look into the disappearance five years before of Merete Lynggaard of the Social Democratic Party, who vanished from a ferry she was taking with her handicapped brother. Merete's body was never found and her fate is a complete mystery to the cops.
In reality Merete is being held prisoner under appalling conditions for reasons she can't fathom. The story jumps back and forth between Merete's kidnapping starting in 2002 and what's going on in 2007 during Morck's new investigation. Morck is an intuitive detective, perhaps the best in the homicide department, and with the help of Assad he gathers much new information about Merete's vanishing. A lot of the new details should have been discovered by the original investigators, whom Carl freely criticizes and chastizes. These scenes are amusing and oddly satisfying.
Adding to his disaffection Carl has a somewhat complicated private life. His estranged wife and her new boyfriend are constantly sponging money off him and his teenage stepson - who has elected to live with Carl - is a typical adolescent. I kind of wished Carl would get a backbone, give his stepson back to mom, and lock up his wallet - but I suppose it's all part of Carl's story. In addition, Carl has a crush on the new counselor/psychologist in the police department, and rather embarasses himself.
The villains in the story behave in a horrific fashion but they're clever and their complex plan was well-thought out. As Carl gets closer to finding Merete her time may just be running out and there's a dramatic suspenseful climax.
The characters in the book are well-portrayed and believable (if you accept that some people behave monstrously) and the story is engaging. I highly recommend this book to mystery lovers and look forward to reading more of this author's work.