Review - The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jurri Adler-Olsen

Saturday Aug 27 2011
by Jack

One of the myriad tasks of the bookstore owner is to read a substantial proportion of the new books he or she is trying to sell. A substantial proportion of customers will show me a book and ask, “have you read this?”  As a result, over the past four years I have -- every month – read on average 15 to 20 new books in whole or in part, as well as many older ones. There is an occupational hazard here, of course, and it is that my critical discriminatory powers will become greatly weakened by the sheer volume of my reading. I am not certain that this is happened; what I am sure of is that increasing numbers of books strike me as repetitive, derivative, and totally unimaginative.  The situation is just as bad with the Scandinavian authors as with the North American ones; indeed, it is if anything even worse.  One of the many unfortunate effects of the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson  has been that publishers, who follow such successes like lemmings questing the sea, have brought out as many Scandinavian writers as they have been able to dredge up and translate, labeling each one as the “next Stieg Larsson”.  In some cases the publisher hype has been absolutely ludicrous.  To see books by Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo  -- each of whom was a bestseller at least ten years before Larsson began writing his “Millenium Trilogy” -- labeled by “the next Stieg Larsson” – is in the same league as seeing authors  labeled “New York Times Bestsellers”, often on the strength of a week or two on that august newspapers paperback listings. In any event, many books recently published in English by Scandinavian authors are, at best, dreadful.  They share with Stieg Larsson only a profound atmosphere of gloom, violence, and social disfunctionality. The truth is that Stieg Larsson was a phenomenon, and we are not likely to see his likes again.  The outstanding feature of Larsson for me was his ability to appeal to the widest possible range of readers, from people who normally read only cozies to people who normally only read the darkest of thrillers and to everybody in between as well.  The only comparable writer was J K. Rowling. The universal appeal of Larsson and Rowling will probably not be replicated, at least not in the near future.

Having said all this, it is still the case that the occasional Scandinavian book is worth reading.  We have two such efforts currently on our shelves, both in hardcover.  I suspect that neither will enjoy the universal approbation that Larsson exhibited, but each is in its own way a book out of the ordinary.  The first such book is Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist.  Kepler is actually the pseudonym of a couple of Swedish journalists writing their first book.  The work is dark and violent, reminiscent in the mystery to be investigated of Larsson’s first volume.  Instead of Lisbeth Salander, an autistic computer savant, we have Dr Erik Bark, a professional hypnotist.  Can he induce information from a young witness in a state of shock?  The tension builds…

The second book I really liked is The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, one of Denmark’s leading crime writers for some years.  It is a mark of the utter incompetence of the publishing community that it has taken until now for Adler-Olsen to make his appearance in English.   Adler-Olsen takes as his premise a well-worn idea, that of a police unit devoted to solving cold case crimes.  Unlike most such units, however, this one is intended as a place to rusticate a detective named Carl Morck, who has become too awkward for his colleagues to work with.  It is not particularly intended to solve crimes.  As an assistant to this dysfunctional character with almost no budget, we have an unpaid janitor named Assad who is a recent immigrant to Denmark and apparently has some secret service experience in some unnamed Middle Eastern country.  The crime to be investigated is the kidnapping of a female government bureaucrat and politician (whose experiences in captivity form a part of the ongoing story).  Again, this is a dark tale, but it is relieved by frequent flashes of humour and a wonderful developing relationship between Carl and Assad .  I think this book has some structural problems, but it still kept me up late at night reading until it was done.

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