Detective Carl Mørck is assigned to the cold case desk by his superiors because they hate him, but he winds up locating and saving a missing politician long believed to be dead. Mørck is swimming in pain and remorse, because he was there when two of his fellow officers were shot and killed, and he never drew his weapon to save them. He's assigned to a small office with no one else around and a stack of files on unsolved cases long ago abandoned by the police because they're considered unsolvable.
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Rather than go quietly, he demands that his department, of which he is the only employee, be given an assistant. The department gives him Assad, a Syrian immigrant with an aptitude for police work that is surprising, since he was hired to do menial tasks like filing and janitorial work.
The first case the pair tackles is that of Merete Lynggaard, a politician who disappeared five years ago and who is now believed to be dead. Unbeknownst to anyone, Merete is still alive, held captive by a family who blames her for a car accident she was in that injured several of them.
The family is keeping Lynggard in a compression chamber, steadily raising the air pressure on the inside, wreaking havoc on her body and brain. The gases in her bloodstream expand and cause her to suffer from nausea, joint pain, incredible headaches, and worse. One of her captors tells her the plan is to wait for the anniversary of the accident and release the air pressure all at once, which will surely kill Lynggard as the gases in her blood cause her arteries and skin to burst.
Mørck and Assad track down the kidnappers and engage them in a shootout at the compression chamber, capturing them. After a moment they figure out how to release the pressure without killing Merete. After a team of divers arrives with more another chamber that will allow her to be moved, and her doctors keep her in a medically induced coma for days, Merete emerges long enough to greet her brother Uffe, who believed she was dead all these years. Then Mørck and Assad turn back to the pile of cold cases, looking for the next one to solve.
Best part of story, including ending:
The tension at the end, when Mørck and Assad are literally just minutes away from showing up in time to save Merete, is of a piece with the whole novel. It's very hard to put down.
Best scene in story:
Mørck's discussion with his superiors after he's located and saved Merete should be full of self-congratulation on his part, and insults directed at his boss, who gave him the cold case assignment to get rid of him. But Mørck is uncharacteristically calm and professional, showing how he may be on the road toward changing and becoming a better person.
Opinion about the main character:
Mørck is, honestly, a total jerk. Literally everything he says is about how stupid other people are or how he hates everyone. He's also not a very good detective, missing obvious clues until they're pointed out by his assistant.