The Hypnotist, Lars Kepler

I worry about Sweden.

It keeps me up at night.

I wake in cold sweats.

I worry about the weather there: the snow and freezing temperatures. I worry about the trolls. I worry about IKEA. And I worry about the people. And families.

It must be a terrible place.

Every single novel I’ve read from there – Stieg Larsson, Mons Kallentoft and now Lars Kepler – seem to hold a mirror up to show the twisted, rotting heart of Swedish families. Darkly. Incest, violence, neglect, abuse.

I suppose any country that invents the concept of IKEA must have something to hide beneath the surface of its sleek plywood exterior.

I also worry about the effect of these books on the Swedish tourist economy. Especially on any hotel, bed and breakfast or hostel labelling itself as family-run.

*Disclaimer: yes, I do understand that these are works of fiction. This is not racism; it’s satire!*

Kepler – which is actually the nom de plume of the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril – opens The Hypnotist with the slaughter of what seems to be an entire family. The violence is gruesome but not lingered over – which is a relief to those of us with a tender nervous system! – and a couple of images of severed limbs and joints suffice.

A child is discovered still to be alive despite multiple wounds and extensive injuries and he is rushed to hospital. A familiar image then resolves: the well-meaning but somewhat brusque police officer wants to interview the child; the concerned doctor says he’s not up to it. And it’s at this point that the doctor calls in an expert in trauma care: the eponymous hypnotist Erik Maria Bark.

This is a book that jumps around between different points of view and we see the events of the story through the eyes of Bark; his wife Simone – whose nickname of Sixan I found was oddly sweet; Sixan’s father, a retired but police officer with a somewhat mythic status; and the aforementioned Police Officer, Joona Linna. Apparently Linna is the main character in the book which is the first in a series based around him.

Which is a little odd: Linna has a rather minimal role in the book and is the least used point of view; the book is not named after him; his character is barely fleshed out. Perhaps the plan is for Linna to be little more than a thread from which to hang more interesting characters that he encounters.

Erik Bark’s is the first viewpoint we see. Bark is given the honour of an extended first person flashback narrative half way through the book.

And Bark I did find interesting. His relationship with Sixan – flawed, frayed and fragile as it was – was actually quite moving. A hypnotist who doesn’t hypnotise. A doctor who self-medicates. A husband who has betrayed his wife. The way that a simple misunderstanding – the wrong person at the hospital answers his phone – fed by a previous betrayal – leads to doubt, fear and suspicion and eventually the disintegration of the relationship was actually rather deftly handled and moving. I hope that it doesn’t reflect the two Alex Ahndorils’ relationship! I’ve got enough to worry about!

There are a number of plots running through this book. The slaughtered family that opens the book is dealt with rather quickly: within 50 pages or so the injured boy, Joseph Ek, has been hypnotised, confessed to the murders, given the police the location of his surviving sister and escaped from hospital. Thereafter, Bark’s son Benjamin is kidnapped and the main plot commences. The race to find and rescue Benjamin is given even more urgency as he has a blood clotting disease and will die without weekly injections. The pace of the book is quick: the chapters are really short, perhaps 3 or 4 pages; the writing is in present tense; the changes in perspective are rapid; the writing is quite visual … it’s almost as if the Ahndorils had a mind to a film version as they were writing. A third and the weakest plot evolves as Sixan and her father investigate Benjamin’s computer in which a local gang – somewhat oddly naming themselves after Pokemon characters – have been terrorising Benjamin’s girlfriend and her brother.

The plots involving the Ek family and Benjamin’s disappearance were not terribly well integrated. The Ek plot seemed little more than a device to introduce Erik Bark and I felt it had more potential to be developed in its own right or could have been knitted into the main plot more fully. I wonder whether one was Alexandra’s plot and one was Alexander’s.

There is another gripe I have with the plotting. The main theme is that the past is never past: as a hypnotist, Bark’s research is to resolve his patients’ traumatic histories; Erik’s past betrayal gives Sixan’s present misunderstanding real pain. And the past is at the root of Benjamin’s kidnapping which we learn is rooted in the reasons why Erik gave up hypnotism. But he doesn’t remember that incident until he comes across a video of a hypnosis session. It just didn’t strike me as realistic that the phrase “the haunted house” would not have triggered Erik’s memory as soon as he had heard it!

Altogether though, a decent well paced thriller. And insofar as genres are useful (limited if at all: I do find genre a limiting concept. The temptation is to only read the books that a publisher has given a certain label too. Surely the only real genres are books-I-like and books-I-don’t-like. Otherwise we end up with Polonius wondering whether a book is

tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Anyway, rant over…) I’d say it is a thriller rather than crime because of the prominence of Bark as a character over Linna.


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