“Lars Kepler” is the pseudonym for the writing team of Alexander Ahndoril --- a noted Swedish novelist and playwright in his own right --- and his wife, Alexandra. THE FIRE WITNESS is the third in a series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna and the latest to be published in English, thanks to the fine efforts of Laura A. Wideburg. Linna’s brilliance is matched only by his compassion, which gets him in trouble, as we learn during the course of this book. However, it is his obsessive drive that ultimately propels the storyline, resulting in THE FIRE WITNESS being one of this year’s best books to date.
"The best part of reading THE FIRE WITNESS is being startled by the energy of its beginning and then waiting in vain for the novel to run out of steam. It never does."
Have you ever watched one of those magicians/performers/entertainers who set up spinning plates on pointers and then start juggling balls in the air while keeping the plates spinning? Kepler pulls off the same trick while standing knee deep in kerosene, spinning hand grenades and juggling lit cigarette lighters. The book begins in a state-approved home for seriously troubled girls. That’s actually an understatement. These young ladies make that adolescent daughter of yours, the one who gives you the silent treatment for days on end for no apparent reason, look like Mother Teresa. THE FIRE WITNESS opens on a fateful night when the head nurse at the facility and one of the resident girls are both horribly murdered, and a second girl named Vicky, who is apparently the murderer, goes on the run. Vicky later absconds with a car that has a little boy in the back seat. When the vehicle is discovered underwater, it is believed that Vicky and the child have drowned and the search is called off.
However, Linna isn’t so sure and keeps pursuing the matter, although it isn’t even his case. In fact, Linna is under suspension and being investigated, accused of tipping off the members of a radical but hapless left-wing political group that they were about to be raided by the police, an act to which he freely admits. As a result, Linna isn’t supposed to be within miles of any investigation, but he can’t help himself. The manner in which he continues to interject himself into things, running up expenses in the process, provides some dark comic relief as he pursues the very much alive and deeply disturbed Vicky and the young boy she has in tow.
Meanwhile, a faux medium seems to have some insight into the case; while initially losing Linna’s trust, before all is said and done, she may have something to offer. As Linna pursues Vicky and the child in her extremely questionable care, a question hangs like a dark shadow over the entire proceedings: If Vicky --- who historically is given to episodes of unpredictable behavior --- did not commit the horrific double murder that sets the wheels of the book in motion, then who did?
There are a number of interesting secondary characters sprinkled throughout, including a wealthy divorced philanthropist who was once Vicky’s foster mother and the group home counselor who has a tragic tie to the events. But the star of the proceedings is Linna, who stands tall on the page when present and is missed when absent. The best part of reading THE FIRE WITNESS is being startled by the energy of its beginning and then waiting in vain for the novel to run out of steam. It never does. And as exhausted as you might be by the time you reach the conclusion, you’ll be waiting for the next installment with such anticipation that you just might want to learn Swedish so you can get a jump on it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 3, 2013