When I was 9 or 10 and liked to go to Saturday afternoon horror movies, there was a kid named David who got so scared he’d pull his coat up over his head and watch the movie through the buttonhole. I felt like doing the same thing while reading the opening sections of Lars Kepler’s grisly parcel of Scandinavian noir “The Sandman,” a thriller so blood-soaked it leaves you asking the question, what’s up with those Swedes? And with the rest of us, too, since Kepler’s Joona Linna books — this is the fourth — are international bestsellers and have been translated into 40 languages.
I’m not sure what the appeal is of a mystery genre that might be called the un-cozy, or even anti-cozy. Reading these gory things is certainly less pathological than, say, seeking out images of actual beheadings on the Internet. But they fall into the same general category of physical-suffering-as-entertainment, and as I read, I asked myself a number of times: What’s wrong with me that I am not just setting this thing aside?
One reason is that Kepler — actually the husband-and-wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril — is really good at this stuff. The chapters are short, the characters are deftly drawn, and the action churns along. The protagonist, Detective Superintendent Linna, is a dour but utterly principled and likable fellow. And the main villain, Jurek Walter, is all too believable, given what we know about the ghastly family lives of so many real-life sadistic serial killers.
As the novel opens, a young man — ill, malnourished and near death — is found on a snowy railroad bridge near Stockholm. Mikael Kohler-Frost had been missing for 13 years and declared legally dead. Likewise his younger sister, Felicia. The official police verdict was that the children of popular author Reidar Frost had accidentally drowned near their home. Linna, however, had long believed — without real evidence — that Walter had something to do with the children’s disappearance. Now Mikael tells Linna that he and Felicia had been held captive in a cold, tomblike room he calls “the capsule” and that he managed to escape without ever having set eyes on his captor. The police must find Felicia before she dies or is killed, and so the chase is on.
Walter, meanwhile, is locked up in a high-security psych ward, having been caught shoving a woman back into the coffin he’d held her in for two years. Walter is considered to be so cunning and persuasive that the institution’s staff must wear earplugs in his presence, lest he recruit them in an escape attempt. Linna believes, correctly, that Walter knows where Felicia is, and he sends in Officer Saga Bauer undercover as a psych patient to connect with Walter, psycho to psycho, and elicit information. The ward’s incompetent staff doctor doesn’t know Bauer is a cop, and he plies her with psychotropic drugs. This leads to complications, all hideous.
In fact, there’s little in “The Sandman” that isn’t grotesque. The title is from traditional children’s tales of a sandman who comes at bedtime to toss sand in children’s eyes to put them to sleep. Many of the dozens of victims of Walter and an accomplice are children who die in horrible ways. If you think I am going to describe any of them in this newspaper, forget it.
A weakness of the novel is big things that go unexplained. Captives are provided food and water, but no mention is made of toilet facilities, especially for the woman who spends two years in a coffin underground. And what about haircuts for Mikael and Felicia? I am being only partly facetious. Kepler breezes by a lot of this kind of thing. And Linna does something incomprehensible. Because Walter has it out for cops and enjoys torturing their families, Linna stages fake deaths for his wife and children and sends them off to start new lives elsewhere. Then he takes up with a new girlfriend, and his family is rarely even mentioned again. Weird.
Fittingly, there’s not much sex in “The Sandman,” but what little there is can be puzzling. In his grief over the loss of his children and his wife’s subsequent suicide, author Frost embarks on a life of debauchery that he hopes will kill him. In one orgiastic scene at his country estate, he is involved in some foreplay in which he “strokes her thigh under her dress, feeling her nicotine patch.” I read this three times, thinking this might be slang I was unfamiliar with. I’m still not sure.
In an interview on the blog Killer Reads, Alexander Ahndoril said: “Our own books often scare us. Alexandra is always having nightmares during the writing process.” Read “The Sandman” and you’ll see why.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Lars Kepler, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith
Knopf. 464 pp. $27.95