No Country for Sane Men

Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist will take you on a roller-coaster ride into mayhem and carnage, with parts of bodies strewn everywhere. My hunch is that Kepler (the pseudonym of a husband and wife team of detective writers who live in Sweden) wanted to write a novel that would unseat Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels from international bestseller lists. More blood and gore appears to be their theory. Just keep throwing improbable events at readers, so they’ll quickly forget anything known as credibility and keep turning the pages. And, yes, dear reader, The Hypnotist is not going to do much for Sweden’s tourist industry.

Erik Maria Bark, the hypnotist, had a bad incident ten years ago. Trained in psychotherapy in Stockholm, “It was not until he specialized in psychotraumatology and disaster psychiatry that he came into contact with the various theories regarding hypnosis. What he found most attractive about hypnosis was its speed, the fact that a psychiatrist could get to the root of trauma straightaway. When it came to working with war victims and the victims of natural disasters, speed could prove immensely important.”

Bark had a group of patients?all severely damaged psychologically?and believed they were making progress because of the on-going group sessions he had perfected, with patients reinforcing one other as they worked out their complications with their pasts. Then one of the patients, a woman, accused him of implanting “false memories in her mind during deep hypnosis, and she said [he] had persecuted her ruthlessly and cynically in front of the others until she was completely shattered and had suffered severe emotional distress.” It was the crisis of his career?that “hypnosis didn’t work on deeply traumatized individuals”?so he went cold turkey, refusing to employ the method during the next ten years of his work as a psychiatrist.

Then something happens. He receives a phone call from Joona Linna, a detective, describing the multiple murders in a family?the parents and a little girl. “They had all been attached with a knife?the bodies 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.” The teenage son, Josef Ek, was stabbed a couple of hundred times, but still alive. The detective assumes the murderer also intends to kill an older sister, not at the scene of the crimes.

Joona calls Erik to talk him into hypnotizing the son so any details that can be learned of the murderer can be used to protect the older sister, who cannot be located. Josef, of course, has been put on life support in a hospital. The hypnosis cannot proceed immediately even if Erik will agree. But soon Erik is there, hypnotizing Josef Ek, and once the session is completed, the hypnotist is convinced that the teenager is the killer, faking his own wounds. To make matters worse, Josef?plugged into IVs and various monitors?flees the hospital.

The plot (still only a third of the way into the novel) ratchets into high gear. Erik’s teenage son, Benjamin, who is age fourteen, suffers from a rare blood disorder, Willebrand’s disease. For years, Erik has administered daily injections so his son will not bleed to death from any sort of trauma to his body. And soon after Joseph Ek’s escape from the hospital, Erik’s son is kidnapped. The assumption is that Joseph kidnapped Benjamin, in order to revenge his father because he thwarted the boy’s plan to kill his older sister.

That’s enough of the plot. The characters (the supposed good guys) are also a mixed-up sort. Though dedicated to his son’s survival, Erik has been popping pills for years because of his angst over the errors with the earlier stage of his practice when he still used hypnosis. He’s also a philanderer, whose marriage is once again on the rocks. Other characters from the past (especially Erik’s former patients) are a terrifying lot, even the women. The Hypnotist is replete with child abuse, gender abuse, showing Sweden as a place with more than its share of psychologically maimed characters.

I can accept most of the premise behind the Kepler’s thesis?for some patients, hypnosis is of questionable value in therapy?but when characters endure physical rigor that would be impossible to survive, I feel as if I’ve been suckered. The final scenes up north inside the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter become totally unconvincing, preposterous. There are simply too many surprises. More than anything else, I was laughing out loud, and I do not believe that that is what the Kepler (or the Keplers?whatever?) intended.

My lack luster response to The Hypnotist will not hamper its sales one iota. The book has been hyped for months and is certain to land on the bestseller lists. So turn to Stieg Larsson if you haven’t already read him. If you have, well there a plenty of other good books I’ve been writing about all year. Fortunately, it has been a great year for quality fiction.

The Hypnotist
By Lars Kepler

Translated by Ann Long
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 503 pp., $27

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email:


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.