The Hypnotist: A Novel by Lars Kepler; translated by Ann Long (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 528 pp)

Lars Kepler is the pseudonym for the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril, and The Hypnotist is their first novel. The couple has written three Lars Kepler books, The Hypnotist (2009), The Paganini Contract (2010), and The Nightmare (July 2012).

Alexander Ahndoril’s previous novel, Regissören, about the film maker Ingmar Bergman received wide critical acclaim. His latest book Diplomaten (2010), deals with the Swedish diplomat Hans Blix.

Alexandra Ahndoril has previously published three books: Stjärneborg about astronomer Tycho Brahe; Birgitta och Katarina about Holly Birgitta; and Mäster about August Palm. Married in 1996, the couple has three daughters and lives in Stockholm, with a summer home on the west coast of Sweden.

Steig Larsson-y

Lars Kepler is the next Steig Larson. If you’ve ever read The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, you know how gripping and nail-biting the stories are. In The Hypnotist, Lars Kepler sets a murder case in his  home country of Sweden, with suspense at times rivaling the Steig Larsson novels.

The Hypnotist opens with an entire family brutally murdered. The only surviving witness is the teenage son. Unfortunately and understandably traumatized, the child’s fragile psyche leaves investigators wary of interviewing him. Joona Linna, head detective on the case, convinces Erik Maria Bark, a physician and former hypnotist, to dig into the boy’s damaged mind to ascertain clues about the case.

“‘They had all been attacked with a knife,’ Joona Linna says. ‘It must have been sheer chaos in there. The bodies were…they were in a terrible state. They’d been kicked and beaten. They’d been stabbed, of course, multiple times, and the little girl…she had been cut in half. The lower part of her body from the waist down was in the armchair in front of the TV’” (11).

Likable and Fallible


Photo by Greg McMullin

Erik, however, though a competent psychiatrist, is reluctant to delve into the practice of hypnotism. A narcissistic, lugubrious, and guilt-ridden man, Erik recoiled from hypnotism several years earlier because of a tragedy that ensued after a session with a patient. Erik is addicted to painkillers (reminiscent of the TV doctor House) and his son, Benjamin, carries a disease which requires much attention. Worse, his wife, Simone, seems to dislike Eric. Kepler introduces us to characters that are excessively flawed, which only causes the reader to root for them more.

Erik Bark eventually breaks his vow on hypnosis after detective Joona convinces him to do so. He hypnotizes the son, Josef, who almost instantly confesses while hypnotized that he killed his entire family. The subconscious mind, however, is a precarious and unstable labyrinth, and the characters in the novel ponder whether or not it is true.

Hypnosis Turned Awry

Photo by Elley Inad

But, just as the horrendous murder case is about to close, Josef escapes from the hospital. Erik’s son Benjamin is kidnapped while his wife is drugged and forced, temporarily immobile, to watch her son be dragged away by a masked stranger. Could it be the boy, Josef?

“She tries again to get up, but she can no longer move; it’s as if she has no connection with her legs, no sensation at all in her lower body. There is a strange fluttering sensation in her chest, and she feels short of breath. Her vision disappears for a few seconds, and when it returns it is cloudy. Someone is dragging Benjamin along the floor by his legs. His pajama top has worked its way up, and his arms are windmilling slowly, in confusion. He tries to hold on to the doorframe but is too weak. His head banks against the threshold. He looks Simone in the eye. He is terrified; his mouth is moving but no words come out. She reaches sluggishly for his hand but misses it. She tries to crawl after him but hasn’t the strength; her eyes roll back in her head; she can see nothing and blinks and perceives only brief fragments as Benjamin is dragged through the hallway and out onto the landing. The door is closed carefully. Simone tries to call for help, but no sound comes; her eyes close, she is breathing slowly, heavily, she can’t get enough air. Everything goes black.” (167).

Joona and Erik then embark on a mission to save his son and catch the killer, and plot-twists abound.

To Hypnotize or Not to Hypnotize

Photo by Alexander Bolotnov

At over five hundred pages, it would have seemed that The Hypnotist would be a long read. That’s why it sat on the lower shelf of my bookcase for a few months. I finally mustered up the courage to pick up the book, and I found that it was what one would call a “page-turner”. The novel flowed quickly, with chapters rarely exceeding three pages. Moreover, the content, with its innumerable plot twists and scenes of gore, never ceased to entertain.

The book offers an interesting idea in regard to hypnotism and its uses. I hadn’t given much thought to hypnosis before, as it normally is what I think of when I go to a magic show, where someone, under hypnotic suggestion, inadvertently eats a raw onion or takes off their pants much to their later chagrin.

But, hypnosis has a very different meaning in the novel. Hypnosis is used as a means to delve into the subconscious of a person, in order to extract information either repressed due to a traumatic event (a mass murder) or because the individual is simply unwilling. This begs the question whether or not authorities should engage with a witness in this way. It makes one wonder if it is even ethical to extract information from a witness via hypnotism or if hypnotism is even reliable.

If you’re in the mood for the next “Steigian” novel, I recommend The Hypnotist to you, as I’m sure you’ll be up late at night reading far too long just as I was.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Posted by:Andrew Jacobson
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