The Sandman is the fourth of the Joona Linna thrillers by the husband and wife team of Swedish psychologists who write as Lars Keplar. And for a scarier set of titles I think you probably have to go back to Mo Hayder’s first two offerings, Birdman and The Treatment.
It has now got to the stage where I no longer pass the Keplar books onto friends to read because they come back to me with moans that reading them contributed to nightmares. Maybe that is the highest praise that can be attributed to thrillers. Anything less and the author has been just pretending. Of course, were I of a more cynical bent I might suggest that the Keplar team are onto a good thing – writing books that scare people shitless while also collecting by treating them for the resultant phobias. Good trick that.
The Sandman is an old adversary of Detective Inspector Joona Linna of the Swedish Police’s National Criminal Investigation Department. Thirteen years ago Linna and his sidekick Samuel Mendel had investigated a series of 45 missing persons cases and reached the conclusion that the same person had been responsible for all the abductions and disappearances. There was also a strong link between many of the disappearances insofar as several involved members of the same families. While both policemen were convinced they were looking for a single serial killer, they had no firm evidence to support them. Their killer was practically invisible, left no evidence, didn’t follow any pattern and left no signature to mark the disappearances as the work of one person. Their superiors refused to be convinced by their suspicions and quickly downgraded the investigations, moving Linna and Mendel onto other cases. But the two coppers don’t let it go, and began to devote their spare time to searching for the killer, concentrating on surveillance of the families of the last two women to disappear. While they were doing so, the son and daughter of a successful author also disappeared, again without trace.
Traumatised by the loss of her two children the author’s wife goes to stay with her sister in Stockholm and Joona and Samuel shift their surveillance with her. On the eighth night of their new surveillance they see someone come out from the nearby trees, move towards the house, and then stare briefly into the woman’s bedroom window, before disappearing back into the trees. The two detectives follow his footsteps through the snow. Eventually they lose the trail but at that point also “hear high pitched whimpering sounds…..like an animal crying, like nothing Joona and Samuel hade ever heard before….The man they had followed was standing in front of a shallow grave . The ground around him was covered with freshly dug earth. An emaciated, filthy woman was trying to get out of the coffin…” The next morning an extensive search of the area reveals other bodies, some of victims had been dead for over four years.
The suspect is Jurek Walter who had arrived in Sweden from Poland in 1994 and worked as a mechanic repairing train gearboxes and engines. But that is all they can find out about the man, until they are informed by the Polish police that Jurek Walter had been found murdered many years before in the railways station at Krakow. However, the photographs and fingerprints they send to Sweden fail to match those of the serial killer. The trial follows, the serial killer remains incarcerated and stays in prison during a subsequent appeal.
The evening before the appeal is heard Joona and his wife and daughter go for a meal at the home of Samuel and his family. That was the last time Joona saw Samuel’s wife and children. They too disappeared and soon after the distraught Samuel kills himself. Even after Walter is finally sentenced to an indeterminate confinement in a high security prison psychiatric unit, Joona fears the safety of his own family. He arranges for them to disappear having concocted a road accident in which both are apparently killed. And since that time he has not dared to have any contact with them, instead becoming totally engrossed in the police work which has featured in the earlier Keplar titles.
Even that solace is now stripped away from Linna when the lost son of the author is found wandering along a railway track suffering, amongst other things, from Legionnaire’s disease. He has no idea where he has been all these years and virtually all he can tell the police is that he was a prisoner of The Sandman who still has his sister. Given the state of the boy it is clear to Linna that they have very little time to find out where the girl is being kept and just who is keeping her captive. His efforts to answer those questions and to identify the killer calling himself Walter make for a very tricky investigation with dire consequences for all concerned, especially Linna himself.
Once again, the Keplar(s) have turned in a thriller which is exceptional even by the high standards of contemporary psychological thrillers. But while The Sandman is an especially gripping read it is not for those of a delicate sensitivity, and should come with a suitable health warning. On the other hand I can’t recommend it too highly, just don’t expect me to lend you my copy or apologise when the nightmares start.