Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lars Kepler & the Swedish Procedural

Lars Kepler (aka Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandre Coelho)
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Bob Douglas, to our group.

Swedish mysteries/thrillers are currently enjoying exceptional popularity with international audiences. The trend began in the 1960s and 70s with the ten-novel Report of a Crime series by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö who used the crime genre to undertake a forensic examination of the dream of social democracy in Swedish society. Henning Mankell, who has publicly acknowledged his debt to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, continued in that vein during the 1990s with his Kurt Wallander novels whereby he revealed Sweden to be increasingly racist, xenophobic and intolerant of immigrants. Building on his experience as a crusading journalist who exposed far right organizations in Swedish society, Stieg Larsson brought this tradition to fruition with his Millennium trilogy that laid bare the corrupt underpinnings of government agencies. In the process, he introduced a new type of character into crime fiction: a damaged, brutalized young woman with no social skills but who possessed extraordinary computer skills and knew how to exact revenge on those who perpetrated violence against women. Despite some turgid writing, much inferior to that of Mankell, he achieved vast commercial success with his three mass-market blockbuster thrillers that led to Swedish film adaptations and a superior American remake of the first novel. One result of the Larsson phenomenon is that other writers have abandoned the social criticism and returned to the police procedural with an eye to producing a book that can be adapted for an international audience.

Mikael Persbrandt and Lena Olin in The Hypnotist
The thrillers of Lars Kepler (the pseudonym for a husband-wife team) are quintessential examples of this type of writing. Both the 2011 debut, The Hypnotist (McClelland & Stewart) and its 2012 successor, The Nightmare (McClelland & Stewart) possess filmic qualities with over one hundred short swift scenes (chapters), a surfeit of dialogue and the minimum exposition needed to further the narrative. Although set in Sweden, the characters, the ghastly crimes committed and the dogged effort of the police to track down the killers could be anywhere. Both novels possess a universal resonance with their focus on the fraying and the reestablishing of family bonds, and an abiding preoccupation with the nature of evil. The Hypnotist is the better book because it has a narrower focus and its most compelling character is not the police inspector, the brilliant but immodest, Joona Linna, but the eponymous psychiatrist, Erik Maria Bark, whose skills are called upon after three members of a family are brutally murdered. Only the fifteen-year-old boy survives the attack, and Joona is convinced that the boy must be hypnotized in the hope that he can identify the attacker and that other lives can be saved. Bark is most reluctant and has avowed not to hypnotize anyone again because of an incident that happened ten years previously. Under pressure, he does and the results are not what either he or the inspector had envisaged. The hypnosis triggers a chain of unsettling events, more graphic violence, some of it by criminals Bark had once treated with group therapy, drugs and hypnosis. The decision to reach into the unconscious recesses of the boy’s mind reverberates throughout the novel impinging directly on Bark’s own family when his son is kidnapped and his marriage deteriorates. Although Kepler writes with panache in this tautly paced page-turner, few readers will find the bon mot or the penetrating insight that distinguishes some writers of the crime genre.

If The Hypnotist is organized around personality disorder, The Nightmare is more political as it veers into the murky waters of international law and arms embargoes  Here Linna does not have the talents of a Bark to complement his own undeniable strengths: his intuition, his insight and an ability to speculate from few details what has transpired. Through a photo, he is able to connect what appear to be unrelated events: the suicide of an arms-export official and the death of a young woman found on a boat. In a remarkable scene before his colleagues, Linna demonstrates how the young woman died. He does, however, receive assistance from a minor character, Axel Riessen, the arms- export official with both a troubled past and present, who has been chosen to succeed the deceased civil servant. Not only is Riessen willing to demonstrate courage and integrity in his official capacity, he is able to elaborate on Linna’s intuition into the significance of that photo; a celebratory moment at a chamber music concert of four persons that included a military advisor to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir; and an international arms dealer and fixer, Raphael Guidi. Riessen’s skill as a violinist and a musicologist is pivotal in solving this complex case that involves a professional hit man and the wealthy arms dealer who makes the Paganini Contract that requires the individual to reveal his worst nightmare; if the contract is broken, the nightmare is enacted. The most terrifying moments occur when we witness that enactment. Yet Guidi, who loves the violin and collects them, considers himself a civilized man. Think Reinhard Heydrich.

Although his writing is leaner than Larsson’s, The Nightmare is marred by too many subplots and Kepler’s decision to provide a backstory for what seems all his minor characters. The chase scenes near the beginning as a young couple outruns the hit man and the climatic scenes on a boat where the imperturbable Linna manages to survive Guidi and his thugs do strain our credulity. Yet there is no denying its readability and fast pace. It should not surprise that The Hypnotist is already a movie and was the Swedish entry into the foreign category for the 2013 Academy Awards. It did not make the final cut. The Nightmare is currently in the pre-production stage. I expect both of them will be pruned of some subplots and backstories. Whether the films have aesthetic merit remains to be seen.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be available for readers by early February 2013.

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