Joona Linna is the kind of fictional detective who grows on you — quickly. Self-assured and whip smart, he has a quiet personality that masks a stubbornness and arrogance he uses to bull through situations that deter fainter colleagues. And so far in this exciting new series from Sweden he is only lightly tormented by the predictable internal demons that so many mystery writers wield like riding crops to torment their detectives. More on that later.
In “The Hypnotist,’’ Lars Kepler’s first book, Linna shared top billing with a second character. Now in “The Nightmare,’’ the second Kepler book to hit the States, the narrative is all his, and he flowers in all his freakish glory. He is something of a Clues Whisperer, sensing the presence of information hiding in the periphery; at one crime scene he detects a near invisible footprint on a wall that his police technicians had missed.
In short, he’s the kind of character you can build a franchise around. And that looks like what we have from Kepler, who is not a real person but the pseudonym of husband and wife writing team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.
“The Hypnotist’’ was an electrifying psychological drama and chase-thriller where the other central character was a psychiatrist called in to help Linna solve a brutal slaying. The doctor soon becomes entangled in the mystery when his son is abducted and he is forced to confront his past controversial practice of hypnosis as his marriage deteriorates.
The taut pacing of “The Hypnotist’’ doesn’t quite make the leap to “The Nightmare’’; the authors’ decision to broaden the landscape — to international arms dealing — feels as if it has allowed excesses into the plot. Many of the most successful ingredients, however, remain: a slowly unwinding and expanding crime story, intricate detective work, and heart-ticking suspense.
The story turns on the murder of a young woman while on a pleasure cruise with her sister and sister’s boyfriend, and the seemingly unrelated suicide of a Swedish arms-export official. Linna channels his inner Sherlock and deduces that a missing photo from the sister’s apartment connects the two deaths, and that it is the sister who is the hunted one.
The early chase scenes in which the woman and her boyfriend outrun a professional assassin are, to be charitable, a bit much. And as “The Nightmare’’ moves from police procedural to all-out action thriller the credulity factor comes in for a drubbing. The extraordinary damage to life and property wrought by the hit man is reminiscent of epic movie-scale violence and perhaps for good reason. In an interview on the Kepler website, the Ahndorils acknowledge being film buffs, and when Linna is at his most improbable as a Bond-like man of action it’s hard not to think the authors had one eye on the screenplay.
So far that’s all part of a fun package that includes some wonderful cameos from assorted oddballs, and the emergence of a fascinating secondary character, Axel Riessen. Tapped to succeed the dead arms-export official, Axel is pressured to bless the mysterious sale of ammunition at the center of the crime, but makes a stand on integrity that provides a pivotal plot turn. Axel is also a genuine freak; he’s got some real interesting stuff going on that contributes to the story on several fronts and adds a distinctive tang to the narrative.
The Ahndorils say the next two books will delve deeper into Linna’s personality, into the personal tragedy that has only barely surfaced in the books so far. Linna’s been pretty interesting without melodrama, and a detective haunted by his internal demons is too much of a cliché for me to cheer this news. But given the admirable work performed by this pair so far, the Ahndorils have more than earned the benefit of the doubt.