BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Hypnotist’: Page-Turning Swedish Thriller

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Hypnotist': Page-Turning Swedish Thriller in Tradition of Stieg Larsson, Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, Henning Mankell

I discovered “The Hypnotist” in its hardcover form at our excellent public library — let’s give  a big cheer for librarians everywhere, my favorite people! — and devoured it in two sittings. The novel by Lars Kepler, translated from the Swedish by Ann Long, is now available in a trade paperback from Picador (528 pages, $16.00) and is a worthy book in the Nordic Noir tradition of Stieg Larsson (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), the writing duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Henning Mankell.

Kepler is the pseudonym for a married couple (see below) and the thriller is well written, with great characterization and good plotting. There are enough red herrings to satisfy the most discriminating reader.

There’s no Lisabeth Salander “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” character in the book — unless you count the bad people and characters who are goths and love Pokemon — but Detective Inspector Joona Linna and psychiatrist Erik Maria Bark combine to make a good team that will probably show up in subsequent works by Kepler.

Its late November and December, the run up to Christmas  and in suitably cold metropolitan Stockholm,  Detective Inspector Joona Linna has been assigned to a gruesome triple homicide, at his request. The killer is still at large, and there’s only one surviving witness — -teen-age Josef Ek,whose family was killed before his eyes. With one hundred knife wounds on his body, Josef lies in a state of shock, scared into silence. Linna sees only one option: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. It’s the sort of work that Bark has sworn he would never do again—ethically dubious and the cause of his losing his post at a prestigious Stockholm hospital.

Alexandra and Alexander Coelho Ahndoril

Alexandra and Alexander Coelho Ahndoril
photo: Anna Lena Ahlstrom

Linna doesn’t have the family complications of Dr. Bark — he’s got a girlfriend and many of the female members of the police department would be delighted to claim him — but he’s in conflict with his bosses, mostly because he’s always right.

Bark’s wife Simone runs an art gallery and the teen-age son Benjamin was born with a blood disease that requires regular medication to prevent internal bleeding. Since Erik Maria Bark — his mother was a big fan of German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, hence the “Maria” which caused many “Boy Named Sue” problems for the future doctor — was discovered in an extramarital affair ten years ago, Simone is not the forgive and forget trusting wive Bark would wish for.

I won’t give away any more of the plot other than to say the book ranges from metropolitan Stockholm all the way north to Lappland in the large country. It’s not Stieg Larsson, but it’s excellent reading and Joona Linna will be featured in a motion picture directed by
Swedish director Lasse Hallström — known for movies such as “Gilbert Grape”, “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.” It will be the first time in over two decades that Hallström will be directing a Swedish film; a Swedish film of a previously untried genre.

I found this on the official site of   the Swedish Institute
“I’ve written nine novels in my own name,” co-author Alexander Coelho Ahndoril says, “but it’s only now that something like this has happened. The fact that we’ve been inspired by the medium of film is another matter. Just like in the film world we want to portray the crime as it actually happens. In our case, what in fact led us into crime writing was watching countless movies.”     Lars Kepler, [the authors] say, is the person they become when they write crime novels.

“It seemed perfectly natural,” Alexandra says. “We’ve both been very keen on crime stories, and when we started writing together we couldn’t stop. It was just too much fun. And originally the idea was that we’d keep it secret, but then it somehow leaked out.”

Just months after his debut [in 2009], Lars Kepler had become an established figure in the wave of Swedish crime writers that has washed over the world in recent decades. But there are still questions that can be asked about his identity. Does he look like someone specific? Does he have any particular interests or habits?

“We picture him in our imagination,” Alexandra says, “and he has a very specific persona. Lars is older than us. He has a full beard.”

“And he’s a bit unkempt, and suffers from social phobia,” adds Alexander. “He used to be a teacher but now works at a night hostel for the homeless. He likes plain Swedish food, meatballs and stuff like that.”

Lars began his pseudonym life as a woman called Lotta, who suffered from electro sensitivity. But the Ahndorils didn’t think this figure felt quite right.

“So she underwent a sex change,” says Alexander. “The fact that he’s called Lars has partly to do with Stieg Larsson — the name is actually a tribute to him.”

After only a month in Swedish bookstores, “The Hypnotist” boo topped the bestseller list. When The Paganini Contract (Paganini-kontraktet) appeared — the second book in the series featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna — it quickly rose to the top of the list as well. But both Alexandra and Alexander strongly reject the idea that they began writing crime novels for the money.

“For four years I was on the National Council for Cultural Affairs,” Alexandra says. “One of the tasks of this government body is to help fund Swedish literature. My job was to read every book published in Sweden, which included quite a few crime novels. Most of them never made a mark — they sold little more than the average collection of poems. So, no, you can’t write crime novels and imagine that you’ll automatically make money. At least we didn’t.”

About the authors:   Lars Kepler was a pen name invented by literary duo Alexandra and Alexander Coelho Ahndoril. They live and write in Sweden.


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