Lars Kepler’s ‘The Hypnotist’: Thriller is a disturbing meditation on evil

July 17, 2011

The Swedish novel “The Hypnotist,” a bestseller throughout Europe, arrives on these shores as the latest contender in the “next Stieg Larsson ” sweepstakes. I doubt that it will sell as outrageously as Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — upwards of 40 million copies at last count — but it’s a worthy contender: a serious, disturbing, highly readable novel that is finally a meditation on evil.

The novel opens with a horrific crime: A father, mother and their 5-year-old daughter are butchered. The couple’s son, 15-year-old Josef, survives but has been stabbed hundreds of times and is unconscious. He may be able to identify the attacker and thus save other lives, so police summon a hypnotist in the hope that he can communicate with the boy despite his being in a coma.

Erik Maria Bark, the psychiatrist/hypnotist, is a man of many sorrows. He vowed 10 years earlier to give up hypnotism because of a tragedy that is not at first explained. He’s addicted to painkillers, his marriage is falling apart and his 14-year-old son has a blood disease that requires constant treatment. Even worse travails lie ahead once Bark breaks his vow and uses hypnosis to communicate with the survivor of the massacre.

In one of the first of the novel’s many surprises, Josef confesses under hypnosis to killing his family. Of course, the subconscious mind works in strange ways, and the confession may not be true. The boy then escapes from the hospital and may or may not be involved in the next horror, when Bark’s ailing son is kidnapped.

Bark teams up with a detective named Joona Linna to find both youths, one perhaps a mass murderer, the other possibly in the clutches of someone who hates his father. Suspects in the kidnapping include a group of violent criminals whom Bark had treated with hypnosis therapy and who were not always grateful for his efforts.

The deftly plotted story barrels along in more than a hundred short, swift scenes; it moves about as fast as a 500-page novel can. In one scene, Bark’s wife and her father are about to enter the basement of a house where her son may be held by his kidnapper. The basement recalls the one in “The Silence of the Lambs” in which Clarice Starling almost lost her life to the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. As the woman and her father descend into the darkness — with the reader shrieking “No, no, stop, you fools!” — the beam of their flashlight falls upon “the glass of a framed movie poster.” I take that poster to be homage to Thomas Harris’s landmark thriller, which as both book and movie was another memorable blending of evil and suspense.

Kepler’s characters are admirably flawed. Bark tells us of a brief fling with a younger colleague: “We had sex carelessly, drunkenly,” and then, the next morning, “I felt disgust at what I’d done.” His wife, embittered by the betrayal, has a fling of her own, even as the search for her son continues.

Linna is everywhere hailed as a brilliant detective, and everywhere resented for his habit of declaring immodestly, “I was right, wasn’t I?” We meet doctors who are highly skeptical of their colleague’s hypnosis therapy and teenagers who’ve built their lives around Pokemon. And these are the sane characters.

Some of the murderers kill without hesitation or regret. When the sister of one of them refuses to let him into her apartment, he threatens to slaughter the neighbors unless she complies, and he’s not kidding. Another character, a crazy-as-a-loon woman, cuts off the noses of those she is about to kill as a kind of foreplay. Sometimes, I wondered if these people were insane, psychopathic or simply evil. They blur such distinctions. Whatever they are, you want them gone.

Lars Kepler is a pseudonym for Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril, a literary couple who live in Sweden. Their photo reveals an attractive man and woman who might be in their 30s. It’s a smooth collaboration. On the first chapter’s second page, as the hypnotist exits his home, he “catches the flash of a shining blade of steel behind him,” and we think, “The slaughter has begun!” But it’s only his son’s ice skates hanging from the door. A moment later he enters his car, turns the key . . . and what? Hard-core thriller fans may cringe, expecting a bomb. Instead, “the music pours in like a soft wave: Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue.’ ” The book is like that, with frequent surprises and grace notes amid the carnage. With any luck, we’ll hear more of Lars Kepler.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.

THE HYPNOTIST

By Lars Kepler

. Translated from the Swedish by Ann Long.

Sarah Crichton/
Farrar Strauss Giroux. 503 pp. $27

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