‘The Sandman ’ by Lars Kepler

‘The Sandman ’ by Lars Kepler, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith, Knopf, 2018, 449 pages, $27.95

“The Sandman” is the fourth of the Joona Linna series of Nordic noir by an author who doesn’t really exist. Lars Kepler, it turns out, is “the pseudonym of the critically acclaimed husband-and-wife team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.”

The novel’s dust jacket also calls it a “#1 International Best Seller” that is part of a series that “has sold more than ten million copies.”

All of this acclaim aside, there simply doesn’t seem to be anything particularly original about “The Sandman.”

Joona Linna is a former paratrooper who joined a Special Operations Unit after basic training. He’s an expert in Krav Maga and is now attached to the National Criminal Investigation Department in Stockholm. Joona has a taste for music and was once married. His wife and child were sent into a kind of limbo to protect them from the fallout from one of his convictions. Joona is a meticulous investigator and is often at odds with his superiors. (Can you say “Harry Hole”?)

Saga Bauer is … oh, just listen to the overwrought description of her: “Saga Bauer is an inspector with the Security Police, and she’s worked with Joona Linna on two big cases. She’s not just an elite-level boxer, but a very good sniper, and has been specially trained in advanced interrogation techniques. She’s twenty-seven years old, her eyes are blue as a summer sky, she has colorful ribbons braided into her long blond hair, and she is improbably beautiful. Most people who see her are filled with a strange, helpless sense of longing.” (All that’s missing is a dragon tattoo.)

Jurek Walter is a serial killer captured by Joona 18 years ago. Jurek has been diagnosed as a “schizophrenic psychotic prone to chaotic thinking and extremely violent” — because that’s how he wants to be thought of. Joona is convinced that Jurek has always worked with an accomplice. (There is no mention, thank goodness, of what singular delicacies Jurek Walter tends to prepare for any extraordinary dinners.)

These three inhabit a convoluted plot involving the reappearance of Mikael Kohler-Frost after a decade. He’s found wandering and bloodied on a railroad bridge outside the city. He and his sister Felicia disappeared from their family home. They were thought to be victims of Jurek Walter and ultimately had been declared dead. The only thing Mikael can say now is that his sister is alive, too.

So Saga, after a tense break-up with her boyfriend, Stefan (and after which she shaves her head), volunteers to go undercover to get information from Jurek in the psychiatric isolation ward he has been incarcerated in without possibility of parole.

“The Sandman” is constructed in 181 “chapters” and an “Epilogue,” most no longer than a page or so each. It’s an attempt to perhaps allow the novel to be read at some sort of break-neck speed. At that pace, however, there’s not really a whole lot of time for character development.

Or originality.

There is, however, a great deal of blood “squirting out, hanging like a red haze” above the snow throughout this would-be thriller. There are also the spirits of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter jockeying for prominence. Even the book’s title is an absolute echo of the title of Nesbø’s great, unsettling “The Snowman.”

If this lack of originality can be dismissed, there’s the possibility that some readers will find some pleasures in “The Sandman.” Others looking for something more substantial in a thriller will probably want to settle in with a book by Jo Nesbø. He’s the real thing.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.

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