By Lars Kepler
The Sandman, the previous thriller by the crime-writing duo working under the name Lars Kepler, was almost diabolically gripping, not just nor even primarily by means of its straightforward steam-and-piston serial killer plot but also by means of its telling: hurtling prose as slick and skeletal as an autumn-stripped tree. Most thriller writers tend to reserve such prose for key climactic moments, when the goal is to make the reader ration every breath; the rest of their books consist of the more expected combination of boilerplate and mildly mauve prose. But The Sandman virtually never slowed enough to give readers opportunity to calm down a bit.
It’s a deceptively tough act, the difficulty of which is immediately evident to any writer who’s ever tried to write such prose. Two consecutive pages at that pitch is exhausting to generate; ten consecutive pages tends to baffle attempts; 250 pages is a thing most thriller writers dare not even dream. In The Sandman, Lars Kepler makes it look as natural as falling out of bed.
It happens again, in fact it happens in even more rarefied form, in the new Lars Kepler book, Stalker. The story starts with a scenario that’s probably more common in the 21st century than we like to think: The Swedish National Crime Unit in Stockholm is sent a link to a YouTube video showing a young woman dressing in her home, unaware that she’s being filmed. Soon after, a woman is found dead in her home, her face hacked to pieces, and Detective Margot Silverman instinctively connects the two, and she enlists the aid of hangdog and supremely capable Detective Joona Linna in an attempt to prevent future killings.
The inevitable sacrifice on the altar of such a plot is the immediate next victim in those future killings, and that lot falls to an unfortunate woman named Susanna, who’s alone in her home, eagerly looking forward to the return of her husband Björn from an overseas trip. She’s been worried about a faint scratching sound against one of the dining room windows and has been chastising herself for an overactive imagination. She checks the kitchen door and then locks it. And Lars Kepler plays the moment like a violin:
She walks toward the dining room and notices the wild flowers in the vase on the heavy oak table have run out of water. Then she comes to an abrupt halt.
Her whole body feels like ice.
The three windows of the dining room act as large mirrors. The overhead light illuminates the table and eight chairs, and behind them there’s a figure.
Susanna stares at the reflection of the room, her heart pounding so hard it almost deafens her.
Someone is in the doorway holding a kitchen knife.
He’s inside. He’s inside the house, Susanna thinks.
She locked the kitchen door when she should have escaped.
She moves slowly backward.
The intruder is standing completely still with his back to the dining room, staring at the hallway to the kitchen.
The large knife is hanging from his right hand, twitching impatiently.
Susanna backs away, her eyes fixed on the figure. Her right foot slides across the floor, and the parquet squeaks slightly.
She had to get out, but if she tries to get to the kitchen, she’ll be visible. Maybe she can get to the key, but she may not make it.
She continues backing away cautiously, keeping her eye on the reflection.
The floor creaks beneath her left foot, and she stops and watches as the figure turns around to face the dining room. He looks up and sees her in the dark windows.
Susanna takes another slow step back. The intruder starts to walk toward her. She lets out a whimper as she turns and runs into the living room.
She slips on the carpet and hits her knee on the floor.
She hears the sound of a chair hitting the dining table.
She hears rapid footsteps behind her.
It’s a stack of single-sentence paragraphs, a staccato delivery that remains only just a hairbreadth on the right side of parody. And it’s done with a steely control that isn’t immediately obvious: Susanna is reflexively observant enough, for instance, to notice the state of the dining room flowers (and, a moment later, a piece of food on the carpet), but even so, our authors scrupulously omit the many similar details poor Susanna must also have noticed about the intruder who’s about to take her life. She has a clear, unobstructed view, but the reader does not share it.
The body is found by the returning husband likewise hacked and slashed, the face mutilated beyond recognition, a behavior that reminds the detectives of a man named Rocky Kyrklund who treated his victims the same way but has been safely incarcerated for years. He seems like a natural if macabre connection to the case, but then, so does forlorn and psychologically devastated Björn, who’s hypnotized by trauma specialist Erik Maria Bark (in some of the novel’s most surreally convincing scenes) in order to re-live finding his wife’s body and perhaps furnish some overlooked clue from the scene as it was before the first detectives arrived.
The case bubbles along from there, and although some of the cop-dynamics are a bit too familiar not only from endless TV police dramas but also, to be honest, from equally-endless Scandinavian crime thrillers, our authors keep uncorking those long, harshly whittled scenes, those trademark stacks of telegraphic sentences phrased to work just so. And such scenes aren’t restricted to the book’s mysterious (or not-so-mysterious, if you’ve ever read one of these thrillers before) killer; even a seemingly random violent can read that way:
The bald man grins with surprise and steps sideways into the darkness. There is a click as he unfolds a switchblade.
“I’m going to hurt you if you don’t drop the knife on the ground now,” Joona says in his melancholic Finnish accent, and takes a step forward.
The bald man crouches and moves aside, holding the knife in a classic hammer grip, then reaches forward and takes a few trial stabs.
“Be careful,” Joona says, coughing gently. The knife is sharp and glimmers in the weak light. Joona watches it with his eyes and tries to read the man’s irregular movements.
“Do you want to die?” the man grunts.
“I may look slow,” Joona says, “but I’m going to take that knife and break your arm at the elbow. And if you don’t stop after that, I’ll puncture your right lung.”
“Stab the Finn!” the blond man shouts.
“And I’ll deal with you next, once I have the knife,” Joona says, stumbling into a rusty bicycle.
As noted, The Sandman no doubt prepared a great many readers for the basics of literary aerobics Lars Kepler provides in thriller fiction. Those readers, and the newcomers Stalker will likely attract, will find the same nail-gun precision in these pages. The good news is that the reading will be hypnotically easy. The bad news is that thrillers by other writers might begin to look a bit sedate.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.