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July 28, 2013 / schulerbooks

The Fire Witness, by Lars Kepler

fire witness

Birgittagarden is supposed to be a safe place — a private group home for young, extremely troubled girls who would otherwise be locked up in prison, or strapped down in a psychiatric facility. It’s supposed to be a place of healing and kindness, where discipline is meted out only when necessary, and the hope of a second chance holds dominion over all that is said and done.

That’s what makes the brutal murders that have taken place there all the more horrible.

One of the patients has been killed in her room — her head smashed in. The nurse who was supposed to be watching over them is also dead, lying in a shed with her skull crushed to pulp. There’s blood everywhere, and a gory hammer left behind under the pillow of the now-missing suspect.

But it’s the fact that the young girl’s body seems to have been arranged — her hands placed over her ruined face, as if playing a game with the killer — that makes the National Police interested in what should otherwise be a local matter. And that’s why they call in Joona Linda to take a look at the case.

Unfortunately for Joona, looking is all he can really do, now. His bull-headed methods have gotten him under investigation.for his part in a botched raid, the previous Summer. He’s still got his badge, for now, but his full range of investigative powers is not available to him, and he’s just there as an “observer.”

Try telling him that, though. As fans of Lars Kepler’s other works (The Hypnotist and The Nightmare) know full well, Joona’s insertion into the case guarantees he’s going to take it over. This becomes especially true when it’s learned that the chief suspect in the murders — a new patient at the facility — kidnapped a small boy when she stole a car to get away, which means there’s a race against the clock to find the child alive.

Hampered by the local police, who’d rather he stuck to his own sandbox, and higher-ups who’d rather he just watched like they asked him to, Joona turns to his web of contacts and fellow travelers to wheedle information and get new clues. He also gets help from a wealthy woman who was the chief suspect’s first foster parent, long ago, and is now consumed with guilt for what she left undone.

But there’s another, stranger source of help at work, here: a fake medium — herself a victim of Sweden’s broken foster care system — who may have actually seen a ghost for the first time in her life. Joona doesn’t know what to make of her, as some of the things she’s telling him are clearly lies she thinks he wants to hear. But if she’s a charlatan, how does she know otherwise-secret details about the case?

And there are other, more personal concerns for Joona, beyond his looming investigation over the botched raid. Old family connections he’d buried some time ago are coming back to haunt him, which could lead to something very dangerous starting up again.

As the clock ticks on a missing child, and doors slam shut in Joona’s face, he scrambles to grab any lead he can. One case slams into another as revelations pile up, only to have their apparent worth either multiply unexpectedly, or else vanish like smoke. And while the medium seems unstable, and may be nothing more than a lucky charlatan, the truth behind what she says may hold the answer to a question that Joona hasn’t even thought to ask yet…

When The Hypnotist came to America, back in 2011, publishing flacks told us that Lars Kepler (a pseudonym for literary couple Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril) was going to be the next Stieg Larsson, and that this work would be the next Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. However, it was quite clear from the start that Hypnotist was very much its own animal; whereas Girl required 100 pages worth of patience to get into, Kepler’s work grabbed one by the throat from the start and did not let go. It also presented a pair of twists so unexpected that one’s head almost popped off at the neck, along with the horrific but humane look at the dark underbelly of Swedish society that’s come to typify the best of dark European noir.

The good news is that, like The Nightmare before it, Fire Witness continues this pattern. Reading it is like being hurled down a dark stairway with only Joona’s energy to guide us down, but no one to protect us from the hammer’s heavy fall. And when the twists come, you will wonder what’s happened to your neck.

It’s the main character that really sells these books, though; Joona Linda could well be the poster boy “bad cop” of the current wave of dark European mysteries. A policeman whose idea of going out on the edge means working outside the rules, and making select after-hour phone calls to people he shouldn’t be talking to, anymore, Joona would rather selectively ignore orders and risk his own neck than beat people senseless with his fists, or scare them with a large gun.

That Joona gets burned for doing the right things the wrong way doesn’t matter to him, so long as he gets the results his ethics demand. But one gets the sense that even he knows that a greater fire awaits him — he just can’t stop heading for it, and can only hope his loved ones escape the flames.

The Fire Witness is out now, in hardcover. Those who devour this book in due course will be happy to know that a further Joona Linda thriller, The Sandman, is already out, and merely awaiting translation.

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood

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