I've never been a big fan of Stieg Larsson's work. I know, I know: that's not a popular opinion. And I do acknowledge that haunted hacker Lisbeth Salander is a compelling character. But a 24-year-old woman with the body of a tween whose idea of a good time is donating anonymous sex to older men? There's a little too much of the fantasy gamine about her. That's not what I want my daughters to grow up thinking a powerful woman is. Plus, if I wanted to learn that much about Swedish tax law, I would consult a Swedish tax attorney.
Whatever you think of his work, some good has come of the Larssonous state of American letters, and that is the introduction of the U.S. audience to some first-rate Scandinavian crime writers. Having run out of Larsson novels, Knopf is now pinning its hopes on a Norwegian thrillerist named Jo Nesbø. The Snowman is the seventh novel in Nesbø's series about a brilliant but unconventional detective named, oddly, Harry Hole (one wishes he were at least called Harry Høle), Norway's only expert on serial killers.
Nesbø has hit on an authentic human truth in The Snowman, which is that snowmen, like clowns and mimes, are creepy. The thrills don't come from Harry, who, as characters go, is no Lisbeth Salander. (He's a type: grizzled visage, bad attitude, etc.) They come from Nesbø's eerie stage managing of the crimes Harry has to solve. Early in the book, a mysterious snowman appears on a young boy's front lawn. It doesn't face the road, the way most snowmen do; it gazes up at the house. That night, the boy's mother disappears. When he goes out to look for her, he sees that the snowman is now wearing her pink scarf. Brrrrrrr.
Lars Kepler's The Hypnotist doesn't build up to horror; it leads off with it: a coldly precise description of two children and their parents butchered so thoroughly that at first the police don't realize that one of them, the 15-year-old son, is still alive. The police want the traumatized boy hypnotized so he can name his attacker, but the hypnotist, Erik Maria Bark, is himself traumatized: something bad happened to him 10 years ago, and he swore a mighty oath never to hypnotize again.
But he does, as we knew he would, and he lives to regret it, as we knew he would. The wounded boy turns out to be a kind of Pandora's box who, once Erik opens him up, unleashes an unending stream of horrors on the world. He's no innocent victim is all I'll say here. Kepler (it's actually the pseudonym of a Swedish couple) doesn't proceed crudely by alternating scary shocks with expository boredom, the way less skillful thriller writers do. He/they weave instead, sinuously, taking us smoothly from horror to relief and back again while supplying all the shades of gray in between.