Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
originally published as Hypnotisören, 2009
503 pp

The Hypnotist is a novel of Scandinavian crime fiction, the first in a planned series featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna.  Although the book's author is listed as Lars Kepler, the real authors of this novel are Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril.  As shown in this interview:
Lars Kepler ...  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, 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.”
Their character, Linna, has been working for Sweden's National CID, which deals with serious crimes on a national and international level.  He becomes involved in this case after a janitor finds a dead man in the locker room at the Tumba playing field  and the police are called in.  Officers Eriksson and Björkander take the call, and what  they find is so  horrifying that after viewing the scene of the crime, Eriksson refuses to let his partner go in and look. After the dead man is identified, Björkander is sent to notify the next of kin -- but what he finds at the dead man's home is even worse.  The dead man's family have all been slaughtered, with two exceptions: first, the fifteen year-old son, Josef, who is currently in the neurosurgical unit of a hospital in Solna, and secondly, his 23 year-old sister Evelyn, who was not at the house at the time of the crime.  Josef is in circulatory shock and unconscious, which raises a problem: he is the only witness to this bloodbath.  The police fear that the killer is on some kind of vendetta against the family and may go after Evelyn, but they need Josef to talk so that they can get to Evelyn before the killer does.  Linna believes that if someone could put the boy under hypnosis, they could find out what happened and discover Evelyn's whereabouts.  To do this, Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark, the hypnotist of the book's title.  Against his better judgment and despite his reluctance to practice hypnotism after he'd given it up ten years earlier, Erik decides to do it anyway.  What he discovers locked in Josef's mind stuns everyone, and unleashes a series of terrifying events that puts a number of people in danger, including Erik's own family.

The Hypnotist starts out with a bang and the tension is kept high for a while.  Then there's a very noticeable change, as we go back in time to get to the root of  part of the modern-day mystery. And although this part is necessary to the overall storyline, the anxiety level falls off several notches as Erik's past is revealed. There are a number of details (and let's face it -- a number of pages) that are superfluous to the story that could have definitely been left out with absolutely no consquence to the overall plot, largely dealing with Erik's family life.  And when things get back on track yet again, the solution becomes obvious.  I'll chalk this up to the fact that this book is a first-in-series novel, and perhaps the next Joona Linna novel will be a bit more streamlined and to the point. Hopefully the second one will also evoke more of a sense of place, something I found lacking in this one.

This novel definitely does not fall into my "crime light" category.  The authors manage to  conjure up some pretty graphic scenes of violence, abuse (both psychological and physical), and wholesale slaughter that at times seem geared for the big screen, but which at times comes across as nothing more than overkill on the page, especially in the final scenes of the book.  But I liked the character of Joona Linna and the other policemen he works with, and am willing to give the next novel (coming out in May of 2012) a try. I'd definitely recommend this one to people who like their crime reading on the edgier side -- but if you're into concise, to-the-point and more streamlined crime fiction, you may be a bit disappointed. On the flip side, it's always good to have new Scandinavian authors to try among the old favorites. 

crime fiction from Sweden


  1. I think this is a very fair and useful review. Like you, I liked Joona Linna, but I also stressed in my review that this was just an exciting pageturner, not a very credible story. As the second volume was surprisingly cheap, I have bought it and put it on the TBR for when I need an adrenaline kick ;D

    Dorte H.

  2. As always, thanks for coming by and for your comment.

    There's just way too much personal backstory in this novel that clutters up this book. Based on the novel's hype, I had hoped it would be much better. I think it would have been in the authors' best interest to have been a bit more concise. And speaking of the big screen, this novel is being turned into a movie!

  3. Thanks for your review. You know, I've been hesitating about whether I should read this one or not. I'm not what you'd call queasy but I'm also not much of a one for gratuitous violence and brutality. You're review's got me thinking I might find some parts of this interesting, but maybe I'll wait...

  4. Margot -- everyone reads differently, and everyone has parts of crime fiction they like better than others. I personally don't mind the violence (although much of the descriptions were probably a bit unnecessary in this case and in once case pretty gross), but what I don't like in a serious crime fiction novel are the forays into the extraneous that don't really need to be there. I think you should give it a go; I'm just really picky!!!

  5. I meant "one" case, not "once"

  6. I came from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesdays (BRPW).

    Did I understand it right from your post, that the hypnotist was a secondary plot/character and later became a pivotal point the book? ...sounds intriguing....

    Cherry Mischievous

  7. Hi! Actually, things begin to take place once Josef is hypnotized -- so the hypnotist is kind of at the center of it all.

    thanks for coming by!

  8. I was not too impressed with this one. It started excitingly but it as if the authors lost interest in their plot and shifted direction a few chapters in. There are definite signs that they could have written a very compelling novel of character and atmosphere (the dynamics of the hypnotist, wife and child) but it just veers off too much into commercial, film-opportunity thrills for me, too superficial in the end. I also found it unbelieveable, eg that someone could be so horrifically injured and almost dead one minute, and the next be charging around in graveyards doing dastardly things.....
    Great review, though!

  9. I think you've hit the nail on the head re its "commercial, film-opportunity thrills." In fact, Lasse Hallstrom is making a movie from this book. I have to agree ... I mean, think of all of the movies where a character appears to be dead then comes back to save everyone at the end. The first time it was done, it was cool. After that, well, it was just old.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it