Monday, June 27, 2011

Crime Fiction: The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

Typically, murder mysteries don’t reveal the killer until the end. So when the killer in the new thriller The Hypnotist (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is revealed early on, you sort of think, Well, this book isn’t about what I thought it was.

And that, it seems, is the point. The whole book is like that. In fact, even the author is like that. Lars Kepler -- or rather, “Lars Kepler” -- isn’t one guy. It’s a husband-and-wife team from Sweden, who seem intent on giving Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell some serious competition.

The Hypnotist, this couple’s first novel, is a blockbuster in the making. Set in the land of girls with dragon tattoos, it’s a rip-roaring mystery/thriller that’s amazingly fun to read, relentless in its narrative momentum and stubborn when it comes to letting you go, even for a night’s sleep.

Two characters emerge as dual protagonists: Joona Linna, the seasoned gumshoe, and Erik Maria Bark, the hypnotist who’d rather not know anything about hypnotism. Linna is one of those brilliant career detectives whose work hinges as much on hunch and instinct as it does on evidence and testimony. Think Dr. Gregory House with a police badge and a Swedish accent. Bark, meanwhile, has given up hypnotism as a result of Something Terrible that happened to him a decade ago. It’s Linna's request for Bark’s help to solve an extremely graphic and bloody multiple-murder case that gets The Hypnotist going -- and once it’s going, hold tight. I don’t want to spoil one iota of it, so I’ll just say that the plot swirls with a dizzying velocity beyond what you expect. A marriage falters. A son vanishes. A man compromises his principles. People are killed. Revenge is achieved.

Somehow, the authors (both of whose good looks match their prodigious talent) have crafted a novel whose many different parts -- thriller, procedural, broken-marriage cautionary tale, primer about teenagers -- add up to something far greater than it maybe should. And it’s all held together, expertly, by razor-sharp writing; an arch, knowing tone; compelling characters; and finely honed, fast-moving prose. Hell, even the plot device that isn’t supposed to work -- a protracted flashback!! -- holds together. And more, it holds the plot together, too.

The Hypnotist is the book everyone will be talking about this summer. At least everyone who’s hungry for yet another Sweden-set mystery. But to lump this in with Larsson and Mankell just because it’s Swedish would be a terrible disservice. To tell the truth, I forgot all about Sweden as I was reading the novel; it could have been set in wintry Massachusetts just as well.

No matter what it’s origins, what matters is that The Hypnotist won’t make you sleepy. In fact, it won’t let you sleep at all -- because from the very first page it’ll have you in its spell. ◊

Tony Buchsbaum, a contributing editor of January Magazine and Blue Coupe, lives in central New Jersey with his wife and sons. These days, he is writing his second novel. Again.

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