According to Red Magazine, The Hypnotist is ‘One of the best – if not the best – Scandinavian crime thrillers I’ve read…’, or at least that’s what the back cover of the book says. That’s a pretty strong recommendation, which ever way you cut it, but it’s also the Larsson siren call that we’re going to hear a lot of for the next few years. Any crime writer with a name that looks like there’s too many consonants in it or that has an Ø in it – ideally both – is going to be similarly beatified. At least until after David Fincher’s films come out.
The Hypnotist opens after a murder, a particularly brutal and bloody one, that leaves a family in bits – literally – the only survivor being a horrifically injured teenage boy, Joseph, and his missing sister. Joona Lina, a Stockholm detective – who happens, by the way, to always be right – calls up Erik Maria Bark, a doctor who once did something with hypnotism until a very Bad Thing happened and he foreswore never to hypnotize anyone ever again. Lina quickly convinces him to forget the oath and hypnotize the surviving boy so that they can find the sister. But the boy, it turns out under hypnosis, is a pretty bad apple – he is the killer.
When Erik’s son, Benjamin, gets kidnapped, and Joseph gets away, it’s assumed it’s a revenge attack. That’s what Simone, Erik’s wife thinks anyway and she’s soon tramping across Stockholm with her father in law – a retired detective – looking for Benjamin, who also has a life threatening illness that means his blood won’t clot. Erik however works out that his sons disappearance and Joseph’s escape are a coincidence and that the real cause is the Bad Thing that happened in his past: what was the sub plot is now the main plot. Everyone ends up on a frozen lake in Northern Sweden where Bark has to cope with cracking ice, very cold water and a gun totting former patient and this makes for a rather wonderful and very bleak denouement.
As summer reads go, The Hypnotist is pretty good. It is certainly a degree or two better than most holiday thrillers and a light years better than Jeffrey Archer. But there are a couple of nagging flaws. Firstly, before the action the Bark’s marriage is on the rocks and when Benjamin is taken, it splinters immediately. This seems pretty unrealistic – traumas tend to unite families, masking cracks and fissures, while they focus on solving the problem. It is only later, if the problem remains, that any real breaking down of the family occurs. Secondly, unlike Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson, this novel doesn’t really engage with Sweden at all. Wallander and Salander are uniquely Swedish and they deal with Swedish problem – racism and isolationism in the former; sexism in the latter (the original Swedish title to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women which tells you something about the book). The bright Swedish dream, in Larsson and Mankell’s, view is tarnishing rapidly and they need to expose this dark side in their fiction. The Hypnotist, however, could be set anywhere. But perhaps that is the point. Finally, there was only the briefest of attempts to play with the genre – Lina’s continual but slightly jokingly insistence that he is always right, for example, is just like Poirot’s only much more self aware – and I wanted more of this. Lars Kepler are a literary couple apparently but this didn’t seem very literary to me.
If you’re a publisher, you are going to want to hop on the Swedish crime bandwagon and that’s fair enough – this is a perfectly decent example of a good thriller. It’s just a shame it isn’t more than that. And we have, after all, come to expect much more from Scandinavia now.