A terrorist kidnapping in Kenya, a series of email death threats in Copenhagen– The Exception grabs the readers attention from the start. We’re immediately focused on the suspense–familiar territory for readers of thrillers. But then Mr. Jungersen does something completely unexpected. Once he’s got our attention, he lets it go. The story moves from international thriller to inter-office politics. From the political to the very personal. The threatening emails appear to be harmless. The police can’t do anything about them. Told to go on about their regular lives, the three women who got the emails are left to figure out who sent them on their own. True, they could be from a terrorist, or they could be from the only woman in their office who didn’t get one. This is how The Exception begins to work its way under the reader’s skin like no other thriller I’ve ever read.
The narrative shifts perspective among its four main characters, all women who work for the Danish Center for Information on Genocide, (DCIG). Their work brings them in close contact with very unsavory people, like Mirko Zigic, a Serbian torturer and war criminal whom they suspect may be behind the threatening emails. Zigic, the subject of a lengthy profile in the DCIG’s monthly publication, may be out for revenge. Or it could be that Anne-Lise, the newly hired librarian, has come un-hinged. She was the only one not to get a threatening email; she tends to keep to herself and is suspected of having a drinking problem.
But when the narrative shifts to Anne-lise’s point of view and moves back in time to provide her side of the story so far, the reader is led to believe that she is the innocent victim of the other three women who have joined together to bully her for reasons she does not understand. It’s this shifting of perspective, from one woman to anther as well as backwards in time, that continually undermines the reader’s expectations. As soon as we’re convinced we know what is going on, perspective changes, we get details we didn’t have before and what looked like oranges begins to resemble apples.
Mr. Jungersen keeps The Exception from falling into an account of petty office squabbling by presenting the results of the women’s research into the character of the men who commit genocidal acts. The DCIG is devoted to preventing genocide by discovering how people can bring themselves to commit genocidal acts. The papers printed in The Exception deal with psychological and historical studies into human behavior. Just how did regular soldiers in the German army come to commit mass murder for the Nazi’s? What were the effects of random assignment of power positions on those who participated in prisoner/guard experiments at Stanford University? While some of these articles cover areas many readers are familiar with, others deal with more current research, and all of them make for fascinating reading. Understanding why people behave the way they do adds to the novel’s tension and makes the reader suspect the actions of the four women. It also forces readers to take an uncomfortable look at their own past. Have we ever participated in unjustifiable inter-office bullying to insure our own position or to protect ourselves from becoming the one who is bullied or the one mostly likely to be let go when the office downsizes?
The rest of the tension comes from the lingering possibility that the Serbian war criminal Mirko Zigic is really after the three women responsible for the article about him. Small but significant things happen throughout the novel. It could be that Anne-lise is responsible for them, but it’s also possible that Zigic is the guilty party. It’s even possible that one of the other three women has become unhinged and begun striking out against the others.
I’ve been indulging in the current wave of Scandinavian mystery/thrillers. While I do think The Exception could have been trimmed by about 50 pages or so, and I have a few small problems with parts of the ending, I suspect it will end up on my list of favorite reads of 2010. It’s a thoughtful, suspenseful book that this reader thought about a long time after the story ended.
In the five years since I first published this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., I completely forgot about this book. I may have stayed with me for a long time, as I said in the review, or not. I’ve no idea. Re-reading this review this morning helped bring it back, but I can’t recall anything except what is stated in the review above. I wonder if that’s just a by product of the nature of thrillers. They are focused on suspense, on thrilling the reader, sometimes at the cost of what would produce something that truly stays with the reader afterwards. But it does sound like a good book.