A Monster in the Mold of Hannibal Lecter Haunts ‘The Sandman’

Posted March 4, 2018 5:39 p.m. EST

An English-language version of Lars Kepler’s “The Sandman” first appeared in 2014. That was a time when Scandi-mania ran high in the thriller field, and the book faced stiff competition from Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson and other best sellers. Now that the frenzy has subsided somewhat, publisher Alfred A. Knopf has decided to give Kepler a new chance to scare the daylights out of you. It is reissuing all of Kepler’s books featuring the detective Joona Linna. And the idea feels like a winner.

It’s a smart move to lead off the reissues with “The Sandman,” even though it’s the fourth of the novels. “The Sandman” works scarifyingly well as a stand-alone, and it will soon be followed by “The Hypnotist,” the series’ opener. This is a good way to put Kepler’s best foot forward — or feet, since Kepler is actually a husband-and-wife team, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. Before Kepler was hatched, she wrote historical fiction; he wrote novels, plays and one opera libretto.

But they obviously share the kind of ghoulish streak that has made Detective Inspector Joona Linna an international sensation. Joona is blond and dimpled, with Special Ops training and eyes a granite shade of blue. There’s nothing ghoulish about him except the cases toward which his conscience is always dragging him. Serial killers, broken families and heartbreaking lost or tortured children are among his specialties, and “The Sandman” is an adroitly nerve-racking book full of all those things.

With its tight, staccato chapters and cast of dangerous wraiths lurking everywhere, “The Sandman” is a nonstop fright. It’s able to shift its focus frequently with no loss of tension. It begins about as harmlessly as it can, with a nice new doctor doing his first day’s work at a high-security hospital ward for the criminally insane. (When you finish the book, take another look at that sentence.) This doctor’s biggest challenge is having to deal with Jurek Walter, a frail old man who is this story’s version of Hannibal Lecter.

Even though Jurek doesn’t do much, there’s something about the way he blows out a cloud of moist breath and then writes “Joona” on a steamy surface that hints at vengefulness. Sure enough, he holds a grudge. Thirteen years earlier, Joona interfered with the Sandman scheme, which had Jurek spiriting away the wives and children of his enemies. They never came back, and if all went well, their husbands or fathers would be driven to suicide.

These are the memories that warm Jurek’s heart on lonely days. But “The Sandman” disrupts his peace of mind by allowing one of the kidnapped children to reappear suddenly after years of apparent captivity. The boy’s father, who has descended into Champagne-soaked decadence, suddenly becomes the most doting of parents and hopes Joona can find his missing daughter, too.

The boy’s story is suitably eerie. He was locked up and blindfolded, and he can’t remember much. This fits in with the M.O. of Jurek, whose crime spree ended when he was caught having imprisoned a woman in a coffin for two years, which he found much more satisfying than killing her. You will probably wind up on the fence about whether you needed to know more about him.

But is Jurek the Sandman? The latter was a creature right out of children’s fables. He tossed sand at them, clicked porcelain fingers, forced them into a sleep from which they couldn’t awaken. The boy who finally comes home in this novel is certain of those things. And he hasn’t gotten over his fear of them.

A prominent, hugely suspenseful part of the book involves embedding Saga Bauer, a brave, smart, beautiful cop whose role many actresses would covet, in the same tiny ward where Jurek is housed. She is to risk her life in hopes of finding out what he’s thinking. “You’re like a sister to me, Saga, but it would be better if you died than if he got out,” Joona tells her, and the frankness of that somehow makes the detective more lovable than cruel. He himself has already made huge sacrifices to this case, as we find out. He’s being an honest cop by telling Saga the truth, and she doesn’t flinch at it. She’s his peer when it comes to meeting this challenge.

By this point the book’s greatest tension comes from wondering whether either Joona or Saga is any match for this near-supernatural monster, who can implant thoughts in his victims’ heads or turn up as an apparition just staring into their windows. Scared yet? You will be.

Knopf has taken the trouble of having some of the other books retranslated into English for their rerelease. So Neil Smith, who gives “The Sandman” its tight, brisk tone, has redone Ann Hall’s more expansive version of “The Hypnotist.” I’m not sure it’s worth it. Hall’s version of “The Hypnotist” rambles on, but it has more color, and this series can use it. Joona Linna is a character that you want to know as much about as you can.

Publication Notes:

‘The Sandman’

By Lars Kepler.

Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith.

449 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.