Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of the wife-and-husband writing team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril, authors of the Joona Linna books, originally published in Swedish since 2009. The Fire Witness is the third addictive thriller in Kepler’s globally bestselling Scandinavian crime fiction series featuring the silver-grey-eyed detective Linna, and this racy English translation – designed to please fans of writers such as Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo – has been done by Canadian writer and translator Neil Smith.
The running theme of June has been crime/noir and this concluding column of the month is about the cruellest, most cold-blooded book of all. At a home for troubled young girls, a mutilated corpse of one of the resident girls is found arranged in her bed with her hands covering her eyes.
One more body of a nurse is discovered in an old brew-house next door, her head crushed with a heavy object beyond recognition. Another girl goes missing and the authorities retrieve a bloody hammer from under her pillow. It appears to be an open-and-shut case to almost everyone except Linna, who himself is in the middle of an internal investigation in this novel.
All of this happens within the first twenty pages, and then begins a relentlessly tense, psychologically nerve-racking, and ultimately heartbreaking tale of childhood trauma, barbaric violence, and redemption.
The Fire Witness is a highly effective police procedural mystery, the suspense spooks you but it’s the devastating truths about children growing up in hostile environments which fail to nurture empathy and warmth in them that remains with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Somewhere around the halfway mark a supernatural element is also introduced in the narrative, which may seem like a copout at first, providing relevant clues at convenient junctures to take our hero closer to the answers he’s seeking.
But it adds up in the end – even the sightings of a spectre plaguing an important character claiming to be a psychic. When we translate the word “ghost” into Bangla or Hindi, we arrive at the word “bhoot”, which also means the past. And what are ghosts in the end but hauntings of our pasts.