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Lars Kepler, Paganinikontraktet (The Paganini Contract)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100124694

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2010:2


Reviewed with Hypnotisören


These two novels are exercises in upmarket crime fiction: skilfully and tightly written police procedurals, fast-paced, violent and complex. A male role-model DI dominates a crew of other crisply outlined colleagues in the Stockholm crime enforcement machine. Political and social conflicts are brought into the plot and given a reasonable, liberal-minded treatment. Gender issues emerge only to be correctly resolved and the gallery of lead females, most of them as lovely as they are smart, also contains the odd shrew and madwoman for proper balance. So far, this venture has been a terrific success. The projected series of seven books is off to a best-selling start: sales at home have been sensational, The Paganini Contract (Paganinikontraktet) has been serialised as a 50(!)-instalment summer page-filler in a leading Swedish newspaper and the foreign rights have sold like hot-cakes. Lars Kepler has got it just right – his work excites, even shocks, but does not offend. It seems that the club of professional book-producers, the Pattersons and Clancys and Archers, has been door-stepped by a new writer – or, better, writers. ‘Lars Kepler’ is a pseudonym for a couple of accomplished and wellregarded novelists, Alexandra CoelhoAhndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. When it became obvious that The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören), the first in the series, was going straight to the top of the leader board, the media started to chase the elusive Kepler. Was it Henning Mankell’s cover identity? Or John Ajvide Lindquist’s? Once the Ahndorils had been tracked down by an evening paper, they were generous interview subjects.Their collaboration sounds as idyllic as it is effectively organised.The business side is managed by Green Eyes Fiction Ltd, a jointly owned company, and the research supported by an excellent network of Stockholm contacts. Even the location of their home – practically next door to the capital’s Crime Investigation Bureau – is helpful. The stories are carefully researched and notably strong on the minutiae of police work, e.g. grades; tasks and types of weaponry. The Hypnotist is very good on medical matters, notably drugs and unusual forms of physical and mental illness, while The Paganini Contract is an exercise in political analysis – national and international bureaucracies, treaties and alliances – and classical music theory, especially as it applies to the violin. The Hypnotist approaches the psychopathology of crime through two very different killers. They have traits in common, though: both are as mad as hatters and both are driven by sinister, darkly sexual notions about ‘family’. Without the participation of a psychiatrist, also an exceptionally skilled hypnotist, the parallel trails of obscure threats and senseless killings could not have been understood and the perpetrators caught. However, the psychiatrist is a vulnerable hero, who needs solid police work to back him up. Apart from an addiction to painkillers and tranquillisers, his weaknesses include a past of experimenting with group therapy by hypnosis for selected patients, one of whom was dangerously unstable. When a lunatic kidnaps the hypnotist/psychiatrist’s haemophiliac son, the father inevitably becomes personally involved. In the end, it becomes clear that neither the boy’s courage nor his father’s perceptiveness could have stopped any of the evildoings, despite support of a family team that includes the boy’s mother and ex-policeman grandfather. Instead, the resolution of both this and the parallel crime story, which involves another boy – the sole survivor of a slaughtered family – depends on the imperturbable DI Joona Linna, who is the hero of the series. Linna is handsome, decisive and charming, skilled in every fighting tactic and capable of feats of intuitive intelligence that leave most of his colleagues awed and some at times frustrated.The culmination of both narratives involves dramatic chases, ending in death in one case and capture in another. If the storyline in The Hypnotist is organised around personality disorder, The Paganini Contract revolves around matters of state. Penelope Fernandez, daughter of a refugee from the civil war-torn El Salvador, is a key figure. She is clever and very beautiful, as well as good and brave and devoted to supporting a sensible sector of the peace movement. Practically everyone around her is flawed – notably her boyfriend, a feeble young twit, whose half-hearted blackmail attempt initiates an orgy of forced suicides, killings and general mayhem generated by a mysterious professional hit-man. Even her good, brave, long-suffering (once interned as a political prisoner) and beautiful mother has the bad taste to focus her maternal attention on Penelope’s rather selfish, though of course beautiful, little sister. The action is driven by a photograph owned by Penelope, who does not quite realise its fatal significance. It shows a scene which summarises important features of the plot: a celebratory moment at a chamber music concert, shared by a Swedish arms manufacturer, a senior civil servant in the Swedish Ministry of Defence, a military advisor to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and an international arms dealer and fixer called Raphael Guidi. The deal they drink to turns out to be contrary to any respectable foreign policy, because it has taken place after al-Bashir’s 2009 conviction in the international court for human rights offences.While the hired killer carries on with his devastatingly energetic cover-up action, the elements of the plot are unravelled by DI Joona Linna and his tough sidekick, a female member of the security police who enjoys pre-Raphaelitestyle good looks.The references to Paganini relate mainly to the wealthy fixer Guidi, who admires the master violinist, but also to another and important component of the plot. It centres around two violinist brothers, both outstanding classical musicians. One of the brothers, the best violinist, shares his life with an autistic girl, who alone can help him to cope with his chronic insomnia (another medical twist). These people all have to dice with death when the insomniac brother succeeds to the post in the Ministry of Defence now vacated by the deceased civil servant in the photo. However, his superb violin playing has a critical role, as has DI Linna’s smartness, in the final dramatic shoot-out. Both novels are engrossing pageturners. However, when one reads them in succession, one’s dominant feeling is admiration of the meticulous way in which these books have been planned and researched.The effect is to make that background narrative more intriguing than the plots, which actually border on the bizarre, and the characters, which seem oddly one-dimensional, for all their precisely described features. The intelligence and hard work that have gone into the Green Eye Fiction enterprise is an attraction in its own right; the books invite the reader into a new game: how would you construct the next item in the series?


Also by Lars Kepler

  • Stalker. Reviewed by James Walker in SBR 2015:1.
  • Hypnotisören (The Hypnotist). Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2010:2.

Other reviews by Anna Paterson


Other reviews in SBR 2010:2


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