Names mean a lot to Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril, the Swedish husband-and-wife authors of three (so far) acclaimed and hot-selling crime novels featuring Det. Insp. Joona Linna, starting with their own. Both the real ones—“We always call each other by our full names,” laughs Alexandra over the phone from Stockholm, “we can’t have ‘Alex, Alex’ all the time”—and Lars Kepler, the pseudonym under which they write. The first name is obvious enough, a nod to Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the man who kick-started contemporary Scandinavian crime writing on its way to the enormous worldwide success it’s enjoyed in the last decade. But Kepler? Was Alexandra, who once wrote a novel about pioneering Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, paying tribute to Brahe’s younger associate, the revolutionary 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler? She was: “Kepler was a detective, too, the man who solved the mystery of the planets’ orbits. Besides, we like that sound, ‘Kepler.’ ”
That leaves their cop, whose name is pronounced “Yonah,” and who approaches all his cases reluctantly before becoming obsessed to an extent that makes Sherlock Holmes look like a dilettante. Yes, the Ahndorils have read their Bible. God’s emissary to Nineveh “really didn’t want to take on that job,” notes Alexander. “But he can’t escape his fate, and he’s swallowed by the whale. Our guy is swallowed by his cases.” And what cases they are, from the literally blood-drenched slaughter of almost an entire family in the first novel, The Hypnotist (2011), to the eerie murders at a home for troubled teen girls in their just-released The Fire Witness.
They are intense psychological dramas and action-packed thrillers, with cinematic, three-page, Dan Brown-ish chapters, which often make the couple’s own “hearts pound,” adds Alexandra, to the extent that ”sometimes we sit at our computers and cry.” But for all that, their stubborn detective—in much the same way as Larsson’s incandescent Lisbeth Salander did—threatens to overshadow their stories. A cop who regularly risks his job, and occasionally his life, by refusing to follow orders to back off is a familiar fictional creation, even if this one is frequently laid low by debilitating migraines. (He refuses to take medication for them, because the drugs muddle his thinking.) But by the time he is investigating the crimes in The Fire Witness, Linna is quite prepared to risk other officers’ lives in his obsessive pursuit of answers, and isn’t too concerned when a drug addict he was interrogating is hit by a train while fleeing him.
Although Alexander rightly interjects that the Kepler stories are not “educational texts,” the Ahndorils also use them as windows into Swedish society, especially to examine what Alexandra calls its “segregationist” tendencies. Sweden has changed a lot from their childhoods, she adds—Alexandra is 47, Alexander, 46—when she, the daughter of a Portuguese woman, was “the only non-blond child in my village,” but it hasn’t yet adjusted to its changing composition.
And the couple are of an age to have been profoundly affected by the unsolved 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme, which many critics have fingered as the initiating moment of Swedish crime fiction. “It’s absolutely true,” Alexandra says. “People our age and older have never stopped thinking about this murder. It made us all suspicious of our country.” The recent Stockholm riots, still “poorly understood, but involving young people who feel unwelcome in society,” will almost certainly “come into our writing,” as well, Alexandra says. Linna, too, is an outsider looking in; he’s Finnish by descent, a member of the country’s “largest and most invisible” minority.
The whole package—character, plots, social critique—is remarkably coherent, given Lars Kepler’s writing methods. Husband and wife, laptops side by side, write scenes as they appeal to them, regardless of chronological order, plucking an episode from the giant kitchen-wall storyboard and then swapping texts, the better to avoid continuity issues. It’s a good thing, the Ahndorils agree, that they tend to see things eye to eye.