Lars Kepler’s “The Hypnotist”

Reviewed by Emma Garman

Image of Lars Kepler’s “The Hypnotist”

Certain aberrations of human behavior seem guaranteed to provoke widespread fascination, and perhaps none more so than a mother-child bond gone terribly awry. How else to account for people traveling thousands of miles to fight for (literally, in one instance) courtroom seats in the Casey Anthony trial? Or the fact that those misery memoirs by Dave Pelzer, which graphically detail the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, are runaway bestsellers despite their depressing contents and disputed veracity? If you happened, then, to be a novelist with ambitions of publishing a breakout hit, one with international appeal and obvious movie potential, you’d be well-advised to shape your plot around the profound warping of maternal instincts, and the gruesome consequences thereof—precisely the canny decision made by Lars Kepler, author of The Hypnotist.

Of course, in order to maximize your chances, you’d have other criteria to fulfill: being Swedish would help, as would writing an intricately plotted and shamelessly entertaining thriller peppered with enough sexual perversion and bloody violence to ensure comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Lars Kepler, actually a pseudonym for husband-and-wife writing team Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril, has deftly pulled off all of the above in The Hypnotist, a huge success in Sweden and now out in the US in an excellent translation by Ann Long.

The tale begins with an appropriately grisly event: a couple and their young daughter have been brutally hacked to death, with the teenage son suffering from multiple stab wounds and lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Highly respected homicide detective Joona Linna—forty-five, “tousled blond hair,” suavely confident—is worried that the attacker intends to eliminate the whole family, and therefore might go after the older daughter who lives alone. His only option, he believes, is to ask a psychiatrist named Erik Maria Bark to use his renowned skill in hypnosis to communicate with the boy’s unconscious, and hopefully obtain clues to the killer’s identity. 

The pill-popping and haggard Dr. Bark, who vowed long ago never to use hypnosis again, is resistant at first. But Linna tends to get what he wants—he is so charismatic, and winning, that women doctors and police officers interrupt the gathering of vital evidence to flirt with him—and before long Bark reluctantly agrees to question the patient under hypnosis. Both he and we are genuinely shocked when young Joseph Ek, thus mesmerized, announces that he himself killed his family.

This revelation comes barely an eighth of the way into the book, signaling that what’s to follow is considerably more sophisticated than a mere whodunit. And indeed the murders, and more to the point Dr. Bark’s decision to dust off his hypnosis skills, unleash a cataclysm of terrifying events whose connections are both obscure and unpredictable, even to a supposed super-sleuth like Linna. As the smoothly-oiled storytelling machinery propels us forward, as more killings occur and the intrigue thickens, Linna and Bark must discover exactly what the psychopathic Joseph Ek and his emotionally-scarred older sister have to do with an abducted fourteen-year-old boy whose life hangs in the balance; the boy’s Nazi-turned-Goth girlfriend; a sinister gang of teenage bullies who name themselves after Pokémon characters; and, most tantalizingly, the ten-year-old scandal that forced Bark to disavow hypnosis in the first place and has haunted him ever since.

That scandal, as conveyed in the first person by Bark in a lengthy, central flashback, centers upon his work with a group of severely disturbed psychiatric patients, whom he would lead in a creepy form of mass hypnosis in an attempt to excavate their buried traumas:

I saw their faces before me. They were ready…it was if they were all longing to return to the depths, as if the lights and the currents down there were whispering to us, inviting us to join them once again.

The effect of the induction was immediate. Lydia sank into a deep hypnosis in just ten minutes.

We were falling. I could feel lukewarm water washing over my skin. The big gray rock was covered with corals. The tentacles of their polyps were waving in the water. I could see every detail, every glowing, vibrant color.

“Lydia,” I said, “where are you?”

Water—both actual and metaphorical, liquid and frozen—also suffuses the drama. Pivotal scenes take place by lakes or in deep snow; the headquarters of the teenage gang is a mysterious place called The Sea, and, since naturally the story takes place in the bleak Swedish winter, frostiness, mist, and snowflakes constantly fill the air. Complementing this Nordic chill is a recurrence of the color blue. When we first meet Bark, he gets in his car, turns the ignition, “and the music pours in like a soft wave: Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue.’” Nearly every time a physical object is given a color, it’s blue; even a key character in Bark’s hypnosis group is named Blau—German for blue. This scheme of “cold” elements is a simple but effective unifying device, tightening the story’s visceral pull and enhancing its powerfully visual quality. For Lasse Hallström, the director of the forthcoming film adaptation, creating a blue-gray-silver cinematographic palette will be a no-brainer; in every way, The Hypnotist aims to chill.

More tricky for Hallström will be deciding whether to cater to the squeamishness of moviegoers by drawing a veil over the deeply disturbing origins (a traumatic C-section, a botched abortion, incest, child theft, sadistic abuse) of the horrors committed by the story’s two primary villains—or otherwise to exploit the public’s grim fascination with such subjects by bringing them to the fore. Either way, the strange similarity that emerges between the antagonists’ biographies is already very cinematic in its narrative symmetry: it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that coincidentally, each character’s mental pathology grows from the tragic failure of a mother’s care, and from the resulting twisted relationship between a brother and sister doomed to end in fratricide.

“Did you know that, according to early pre-Christian law,” says Linna’s girlfriend early in the story, “newborn babies were not regarded as fully valid individuals until they had been put to the breast? It was permissible to place a newborn child out in the forest during the period between birth and the first feed.”

“So you became a person through the choices of others,” responds Linna. And according to The Hypnotist’s nightmarish vision, you become a monster the same way.