Mar 12 2018 12:00pm

Review: The Sandman by Lars Kepler

The Sandman by Lars Kepler tells the chilling story of a manipulative serial killer and the two brilliant police agents who must try to beat him at his own game.

Thirteen years ago, Mikael and Felicia Kohler-Frost disappeared and were thought dead—victims of Sweden’s sadistic serial killer Jurek Walter. After his arrest by Detective Inspector Joona Linna, Jurek refused to speak. Mikael and Felicia are declared dead. Time passes. Then, on an icy night over a decade after Jurek’s imprisonment, Mikael—emaciated and suffering from Legionnaire’s disease—stumbles out of the forest. And he has important news: his sister Felicia is alive too.

But Mikael can’t remember where he was held. All he remembers is darkness, a capsule-like door, and a strange man who may or may not be Jurek Walter. Whenever the man arrives, he smells like sand, and Mikael and Felicia fall asleep. Detective Joona Linna always suspected that Jurek Walter had an accomplice. Now, with the appearance of the Sandman, it looks like he was right, and the race is on to save Mikael’s sister.

The Sandman is the fourth installment in Lars Kepler’s series featuring the fierce detective Joona Linna. You don’t need to have read the previous internationally bestselling novels to follow this story. Kepler—the pseudonym of a bestselling husband-and-wife team—has created a fast-paced story with a strong cast of characters, all of whom play an integral part in this complex series of events.

Time is of the essence to save Felicia, so Joona pulls in a collection of the best detectives National Crime has to offer. While there’s a full-on search party covering the countryside, forensic scientists are digging into the evidence, and Joona is doing everything he can to jog Mikael’s memory—more must be done.

Joona hatches a rather desperate plan to try to get Jurek talking. Joona recruits the young badass Saga Bauer—a beautiful, intelligent, and deadly police officer—to go undercover in Jurek’s high-security psychiatric ward, hoping she’ll get the murderer to talk.

“We have nothing more to go on now than they had thirteen years ago,” Verner says. “We don’t know anything. But Jurek Walter knows. He knows where Felicia is, and he knows who his accomplice is.”

Verner explains that it’s impossible to get the truth out of Jurek Walter in a conventional interrogation.

“Not even torture would work,” Carlos says, leaning back against the windowsill.

“What the hell? Why don’t we do what we usually do then?” Saga asks. “Surely all we have to do is recruit just one damn informant. One of the nurses, of a psychiatrist who can—”

“Joona says—sorry to interrupt,” Verner cuts in. “But Joona says that Jurek may already have influence over members of the staff. That’s the way Jurek functions. It’s just too risky to take a chance, since we don’t know who he may have gotten to.”

“So what the hell do we do?”

“Our only option is to install a trained agent as a patient in the same institution,” he replies.

“Why would he talk to a patient?” Saga asks skeptically.

“Joona thinks we need to find an agent who’s so exceptional that Jurek Walter ends up curious enough to want to know more.”

“Curious how?”

“Curious about them as a person, and not just because they represent the possibility of getting out,” Carlos replies.

“Did Joona mention me?” she asks in a serious voice.

“You’re our first choice,” Verner says firmly.

“Who’s you second choice?”

“There isn’t one,” Carlos replies.

No matter what the cops want, Jurek has not gotten this far in life without learning a trick or two of his own. This is a bad guy who is that entertaining mix of “terrifying to be around” and “fascinating to watch.” (Much like Hannibal Lecter.) What’s amazing is how he manipulates the situation even from inside a psychiatric ward where he’s not allowed to contact the outside world.

But is Jurek as bad as they (the police) make him out to be? Or is the reader being manipulated too?

When we first meet Jurek, he’s—supposedly—unconscious on the floor of his cell. None of the medical personnel want to be near him. Nor are they allowed. But on his first day on the ward, Dr. Anders Rönn must go into Jurek’s cell to confiscate a potential weapon. First, he and Chief Physician Roland Brolin have to drug Jurek, and we learn the measures that are taken to control this killer:

Jurek steps slowly forward and Roland quickly closes the hatch. Jurek stops, undoes the last buttons, and lets his shirt fall to the floor.

His body looks as if it had once been in good shape, but now his muscles are loose and his wrinkled skin is sagging.

Roland approaches the hatch again. Jurek approaches and holds out his sinewy arm.

Anders washes his upper arm with rubbing alcohol. Roland pushes the syringe into the soft muscle and injects the liquid too quickly. Jurek’s hand jerks in surprise, but he doesn’t pull his arm back until he’s been given permission. Roland hurriedly bolts the hatch, removes his ear-plugs, smiles nervously to himself, and then looks inside.

Jurek is stumbling toward the bed, where he stops and sits down.

Suddenly he twists to look at the door, and Roland drops the syringe.

He tries to catch it, but it rolls away on the floor.

Anders steps forward and picks up the syringe, and when they both stand and turn back toward the cell, they see that the inside of the reinforced glass is misted. Jurek Walter has breathed on the glass and written “Joona” with his finger.

“What does it say?” Anders asks weakly.

“He’s written ‘Joona.’ ”

“What the hell does that mean?”

When the condensation clears, they see that Jurek Walter is sitting as if he hasn’t moved. He looks at the arm where he got the injection, massages the muscle, then looks at them through the glass.

It seems Jurek hasn’t forgotten the man who put him away—but does that mean he knows anything about the Sandman?

The Sandman is Lars Kepler’s long, complex game of cat-and-mouse, which involves multiple cats and just as many mice. It’s a well-paced, deeply suspenseful story that will keep you up at night. Once again, a pair of Swedish writers shows the world how dark and compelling mysteries can truly be.    


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.

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