Sarah Crichton / Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 503 pp., $27
It's an early December morning in Sweden: Snowflakes swirl, Arctic winds blow and a darkness has settled across the land -- specifically northeast Stockholm. That's the home of famed Karolinska University Hospital, where a gravely injured teenager clings to life. Only hours earlier, his family was slain in a brutal and apparently motiveless massacre. As sole survivor, only the boy can identify the killer. That he does so in the first 60 pages of "The Hypnotist" is only the first of many twists in this dark thriller about damaged psyches.
But first, let's get something out of the way -- although their styles might share a certain lurid, cinematic flair, Lars Kepler isn't exactly the next Stieg Larsson. (Lars Kepler isn't even Lars Kepler, but the nom de plume of Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril, married co-writers.) Where the Millennium trilogy wrought sagas of political intrigue, corporate corruption, super-wealthy sociopaths and criminal conspiracies, "The Hypnotist" concocts a taut web of domestic horror.
More crucially, though, there are also no girls with dragon tattoos. Larsson wasn't exactly a master of characterization, but Lisbeth Salander is something of a masterpiece. That the hypnotist's wife, a successful art dealer equipped with plenty of spunk if not entirely a personality, actively joins the manhunt is nice. But what's nicer is that despite the propensity for sharp objects and sexual misconduct, "The Hypnotist's" authors generally avoid fetishizing victimization.
Their focus lies on the occasionally compelling Dr. Erik Maria Bark, the self-medicating, middle-aged, possibly philandering ex-hypnotist of the title, whom police have summoned to tease the necessary information from the boy's traumatized subconscious. He acquiesces, but it's against his better judgment. Ten years ago, his work unwittingly provoked a high-profile tragedy, details of which emerge eventually in an extended flashback. "I have no idea how this is going to go," Bark worries aloud as he enters the boy's hospital room.
You can imagine how that goes. It doesn't take long for the killer to learn of Bark's involvement, but when the media seize on the story, the troubles pile on. Pretty soon an innocent child goes missing, and we're off and running, along the way introduced to a sprawling cast that includes hospital colleagues, the local gang of disturbed teens and a number of former patients. Between them, nearly all are guilty of something -- incest, torture, horrifying child abuse, random acts of manipulation, infidelity, pathological piety, putting Pokemon in the service of nefarious purposes, and a hint of Nazism. "What's wrong with people?" Bark's wife wonders as the story nears its bloody denouement.
Bark may be the de facto star of this installment, but the novel is intended to kick off an eight-book series focused on Detective Joona Linna, and in Linna, perhaps the authors hope to put a sexier spin on the Scandinavian procedural. No schlubby small-town cop plagued by self-doubt, Linna is the top detective at the National Criminal Investigation Department, driven not only by the ghost of cases past but also a firm belief in his own infallibility. And that's about it. Just how the detective will round out into a worthy anchor for a franchise is unclear.
But this is not a detective's story -- half the plot wouldn't exist without Linna's useful ability to overlook a clue -- it's a race across Stockholm (with one mad dash to Lapland thrown in), sustained by its menacing aura as characters fan out across multiple strands of the investigation. Deft intercutting, nimble chronology-juggling and a ticking clock efficiently stoke the suspense. If some plot points feel inspired and some inspire eye-rolling, mostly they rush by quickly enough to keep the adrenaline flowing. Throughout, the authors stage tense action and creepy set pieces well, with an eye for a chilling gesture and a grisly image. This emphasis on the visual bodes well for the upcoming movie version -- after the book topped bestsellers lists across much of Europe, Academy Award-winner Lasse Hallstrom was attached to direct the adaptation. It also betrays a novel that operates primarily on the surface, lacking the depth of fellow Scandinavians-in-crime such as Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum. Blink and it's gone.