It’s a Mystery: “It is what we fear that happens to us”

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg

The Sandman 
By Lars Kepler
Translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith
Knopf, 2018


The central character in The Sandman by Lars Kepler, the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing duo, is Jurek Walter, “who has committed the most heinous crimes of any serial killer in Swedish history.” The novel begins when a young man, believed to have been killed by Jurek Walter, is found on a railway bridge. He is nearly skeletal, covered in blood and ill with Legionnaire’s disease. His name is Mikael Kobler-Frost and he’s been missing for thirteen years; he and his sister were both thought to have been Jurek Walter’s victims. Mikael cannot remember where he was imprisoned but his sister Felicia, also alive, is still there. He calls their captor the Sandman.

Jurek Walter is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital. Thirteen years ago, Detective Inspector Joona Linna of the National Criminal Investigation Department (NCID) hunted Jurek and enabled his capture. Thanks to Linna’s stellar cop skills, Jurek, who buried his victims alive, was apprehended reburying a woman who had been missing for two years. Jurek is now an old man but is still considered dangerous. As the hospital’s Chief Physician, Roland Brolin, describes him to a new colleague named Anders Rönn.

Jurek Walter must never be alone with any member of the staff…. Our cardinal rule is that we never go into his cell. … Jurek Walter will talk to you, quite calmly, probably perfectly reasonably,” he says in a grave voice. “He will convince you to do some things you’ll regret. His words will play in your mind over and over again, and later this evening, when you’re driving home, you’ll swerve into oncoming traffic and smash into a semi, or you’ll stop off at the hardware store to buy an ax before you pick the kids up from preschool.

He reassures Anders that he need not be scared, just careful. Anders is duly skeptical and wary. Meanwhile Linna is convinced that Jurek is behind Mikael’s reappearance and that he must know where Felicia is. When Mikael talks about the Sandman, it confirms Linna’s conviction that he’s Jurek’s accomplice, whose existence he had a hard time getting his colleagues to believe in. Determined to find Felicia, Linna orchestrates a risky plan to make Jurek open up. The NCID decide to “install a trained agent as a patient” in the psychiatric unit, “an agent who’s so exceptional that Jurek Walter becomes curious.” One who will get him to reveal enough information to rescue Felicia.

As far as Linna is concerned, only one agent fits the bill. She’s an inspector with the Security Police and she’s worked with him on two big cases:

Saga Bauer is an inspector with the Security Police…. She’s not just an elite-level boxer, but a very good sniper, and she has been specially trained in advanced interrogation techniques.

She’s twenty-seven years old, her eyes are blue as a summer sky, she has colorful ribbons braided into her long blonde hair, and she is improbably beautiful. Most people who see her are filled with a strange, helpless sense of longing.

With a task force monitoring her, Saga Bauer goes undercover in Jurek Walter’s maximum-security unit. Once inside she’s basically on her own to navigate any and all unforeseen dangers. And there are quite a few, including a move from left field from one of the unit’s staff.

Nothing is predictable in The Sandman, this edgy, riveting, beautifully-wrought thriller. The scenes between Saga Bauer and Jurek Walter are elegantly orchestrated to elicit what can only be described as restrained horror gone awry.  Linna is a phenomenal cop-cum-hero who stays ahead of the bad guys with savvy and spirit. Plus, there is a cliffhanger climax that will take your breath away. Who can ask for anything more?

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.