Nordic crime fiction is all the rage now, which I find puzzling. What took so long? The occasional example that would trickle out B.L. (Before Larsson) always seemed to be excellent, whether it was a police procedural such as THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN or a psychological thriller on the order of SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW.
If THE HYPNOTIST doesn't find its way onto every reader's "Best Of" list by the end of the year, it will only be because not everyone read it.
I'm reminded of what happened in music in the early 1960s, when The Beatles were all over the place. British musicians had been heard here in the US before then, but mostly on a hit-or-miss basis. The Fab Four opened the floodgates, and the resultant influx of British music --- influenced heavily by American blues and rock --- was forever to be known as the British Invasion. The same is happening in the mystery and thriller genres, where a seemingly never-ending list of authors with hard-to-pronounce names are publishing riveting, unforgettable and --- dare I say --- classic works.
The latest of these to cross the pond is THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler, a pseudonym for Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril. The first of a planned series (the second installment has already been published abroad) features Joona Linna, a driven, even pushy, Swedish detective with the national police who, as he will be the first to remind anyone and everyone, is always right.
Kepler wastes little time in setting the stage for the horrors to come. Linna becomes involved when two related and shocking crime scenes are discovered in metropolitan Stockholm. The first is the locker room of a soccer stadium where the butchered body of a troubled teacher is found. The second is discovered when the police go to the teacher's home to notify the victim's family: the man's wife, son and daughter are found there, attacked in what appears to be a furious homicidal frenzy. The police quickly make two additional discoveries: the son, though stabbed repeatedly, is still alive (if barely), and there is another daughter who is missing.
Linna requests the services of Erik Maria Bark --- a physician who at one time was regarded as an expert in hypnosis --- to question the near-comatose son, in order to ascertain what happened and perhaps to save his missing sister. Bark, who has not hypnotized anyone in a decade, agrees, with profound and adverse consequences for all concerned, including himself. His action, however benevolently carried out, sets off a chain of events that spin wildly out of control, devastating him professionally and personally. Bark's career is ruined, his already-fragile marriage is rent asunder, and his son is placed in terrible danger. Linna feels at least partially responsible and proceeds to take over the investigation in the hope of saving at least two lives and bringing another to justice.
The answer to (almost) everything lies in the past, at the edge of an almost unspeakable, incomprehensible insanity that is relentless and unstoppable. As a tragic and violent climax plays out against the dark and frigid backdrop of the remote Swedish countryside, a rough justice occurs, from which few, if any, will emerge whole.
Readers might be forgiven if they reach the conclusion that the Swedish population, collectively speaking, is unrelentingly mad. As I read THE HYPNOTIST, the slogan "Sweden: a beautiful country with seasonal affective disorder" came to mind. Everyone here is either unhappy, addicted, ill, homicidal, or some combination of same. The book as a whole is horrific, depressing, graphically and unforgettably violent, and perverse. Naturally, I loved every word of it.
Kepler also breaks a rule or two by stopping the action --- set forth in short, choppy chapters that move faster than you can turn the page --- and setting forth an 80-page flashback that interrupts the flow of the narrative about two-thirds of the way through the book. Somehow it works. Actually, it does better than "work." It will have you looking over your shoulder when you are inside or outside your home, alone or among strangers.
If THE HYPNOTIST doesn't find its way onto every reader's "Best Of" list by the end of the year, it will only be because not everyone read it. Don't be one of the unfortunate few. But put on an extra sweater while you are reading; this one will chill you to the bone.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 3, 2011