‘Lars Kepler’ is the pen name of Swedish husband-and-wife crimewriting team Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, who have written six novels featuring the protagonist Joona Linna.
The Nightmare (Paganinikontraktet, 2010, translated by Laura A Wideburg) opens with a televised debate between Penelope Fernandez, peace activist, and Pontus Salman, arms manufacturer. It’s an inconclusive slanging match, but it obviously strikes a nerve somewhere within the dark recesses of Swedish society, because within days two people closely connected with the debate are dead from not-so-natural causes and Penelope herself is on the run from a ruthless and highly proficient killer. It’s up to Detective Inspector Joona Linna, Finnish-born wunderkind of the Swedish CID, to try to figure out what’s happened, and to guess at where the hitman will strike next.
This novel is impressively detailed and tautly plotted, but it’s let down, I felt, by lumpy characterisation: Joona, for example (who’s referred to far too often, particularly in the book’s first half, as ‘Joona Linna’, as though we’re in any danger of forgetting who he is), is a tad Mary Sue-ish, with his lightning-fast reflexes, quick thinking, and infallible intuition; his one Achilles heel is a susceptibility to surprisingly evanescent and always inconvenient migraine attacks when he’s not medicated with a mind-dulling preventative treatment, and the rock-star-like reception he receives from an elite team of police specialists rings more than a little false. The tone of the writing, too, is a little dull: events are depicted clearly enough, but the words don’t shine in the way they ought; there’s not the clipped and chiselled cadence of classic noir, nor the ice-cold purity of language of the best evocations of Scandinavian social realism. There are whole chapters of backstory which (though ultimately relevant) are, at first pass, awkwardly placed to interrupt the developing narrative; and the action, while often gripping, suffers on occasion from credulity-straining excess and relates, on too many occasions, to characters for whom it’s difficult to muster enough empathy for the outcome to matter. The book suffers, in my opinion, in seeking to marry the traditional airport thriller with the Swedish crime predilection for social commentary, a conjunction it doesn’t properly pull off.
I’ve probably made it sound less worthwhile than it truly is: there are some undeniably impressive set-pieces within the book, and some characters sufficiently intriguing that, by the book’s end, I wished I’d learnt more about them. And if your tastes run to action and suspense, it might well be to your liking. It’s constructed solidly enough, and it holds together; it just didn’t fit me as well as I’d hoped it might.