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by Lars Kepler and Laura A. Wideburg, trans.
McClelland & Stewart, July 2013
512 pages
$29.99 CAD
ISBN: 0771095686

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE FIRE WITNESS is the third in the continuing series that stars Joona Linna, a detective inspector in the Swedish National Police, a man at odds with all of his superiors and a fair number of his colleagues, of Finnish origin, and still mourning the disappearance of his wife and little girl more than a decade in the past. He is under investigation, as the book opens, for having tipped off a group of radical students that they were about to be raided. No one knows quite what to do with him and thus he is shipped off to observe the investigation of two horrifying murders at a supervised home for girls in trouble. One of the inmates and a night nurse have been savagely beaten to death. Joona being who he is, he cannot remain an observer for long and inserts himself into the centre of the investigation.

Joona has little patience for the local constabulary, who seem happy to plod slowly toward an obvious solution to the crimes. Joona, on the other hand, is a close and curious observer and something about what appears almost an open-and-shut case strikes him as somewhat off. Though an impatient man and certainly not credulous, he is also willing to listen as a woman styling herself a medium offers information about the crimes.

Much of the story involves Joona's attempt to find a young girl, Vicky Bennet, who fled the girls' home and is believed to have kidnapped a little boy for reasons that are unclear. It is she who is suspected of having committed the murders and even Joona is half-convinced that she may have done so. Although his bosses are uninterested in pursuing her once they conclude she and the little boy probably are no longer alive, Joona painstakingly pieces together various clues in order to track her down.

This brisk summary makes the book sound like your fairly standard Scandinavian police procedural. But the effect of the book is far from standard. Yes, it has its alienated police detective, but that's hardly a Scandinavian hallmark, And it has a tiny bit of social commentary regarding the privatization of social services for juveniles. But the atmosphere of the book is hectic. No one listens to anything Joona has to say. He can barely get out half a sentence without being told to shut up. Those in authority don't listen to the public, either. When the psychic, Flora Hansen, repeatedly tries to interest someone on the investigating team in her visions, she is threatened with possible arrest if she keeps bothering the police. Any reader expecting the stereotypical dark Scandinavian thriller with characters taciturn to the point of muteness may be unnerved by the thinly controlled hysteria that characterizes much of the behaviour of the majority of the characters in this book.

Although THE FIRE WITNESS weighs in at over 500 pages, it moves at a brisk clip and it must be observed that many of those pages consist of a lot of white space. As it moves toward its conclusion, the tension mounts to culminate in an axe-wielding stalking scene worthy of any horror film. If, when this scene is resolved the book came swiftly to an end, all might be well, but Kepler piles it on in the last fifty pages, going over the top and then some and concluding on a note that has much more to do with the forthcoming novel in the series than it does with the matter at hand.

Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of husband and wife Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril, both critically acclaimed novelists under their own names. Laura A. Wideburg's translation, into American idiom, is more than satisfactory.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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