Dark Heart of Sweden: A Review of Lazarus, by Lars Kepler

Ever since the series began in 2009 with The Hypnotist, the tales of Joona Linna, Saga Bauer, and the dark heart of Sweden, Lars Kepler has captivated their audience.  Swedish detective fiction is a very unique genre, one which often goes far and above the types of crimes and mysteries written about by American counterparts.  Beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the world found a taste for the darkness that only Nordic authors seem capable of capturing.  Since the completion of that trilogy, Lars Kepler has kept the tradition going.  Originally published in 2018, but only recently released in English, Lazarus is the seventh entry into the newly christened Killer Instinct series of detective novels.  I have followed this series since the beginning, and each entry never fails to draw me in while making me feel slightly ill.  The best combination for a detective novel.

Unfortunately, if Lazarus is your first entry into the series, you may be left a bit confused.  There is enough here for new readers to get invested, and the few callbacks to previous books are not so egregious as to lose you.  However, for the first time in this series, Lazarus is a direct continuation.  So far, each novel in the ongoing series has been relatively self-contained.  Characters certainly cross over, along with our dual protagonists, but the plots mostly remain separate with each novel tackling a new mystery.  Any connective plot points have dealt with the characters’ personal lives and the changes they have undergone dealing with the crimes Lars Kepler writes about.  Fair warning, this series is not for the faint of heat.  The fourth novel in this series, The Sandman, introduced serial killer Jurek Walter, a past adversary of main protagonist, Joona Linna.  In the past of the novels, Jurek was responsible for the death of Joona’s partner, and Joona was forced to fake the deaths of his wife and daughter and send them into hiding to avoid Jurek’s wrath.  At the finale of The Sandman, Jurek is thought dead.  But Kepler has brought back the monster to threaten our heroes once more.

Before getting into the plot, it is worth noting how Lars Kepler—actually the pen name of a husband-and-wife writerly team—has decided to frame the prose of their series, including Lazarus.  Most novels are written in the past tense, full of “was” and “were” and “did.”  Third-person and first-person narratives alike use this convention, framing it as if the characters, and therefore the reader, were looking back on events and telling the story.  However, Kepler instead utilizes the rarer present-tense narrative.  Combined with a close-third person that puts us in the head of whichever character we follow for that chapter, the book ensures that we are right there with our characters as events unfold.  This serves to seriously ramp up the mounting tension of the novel and keep things unpredictable.  There is a certain sense of safety in the use of past tense.  It is as if events have already occurred, and we are just reading about them.  There is nothing the characters can do to change things as the plot has already unfolded.  However, with present tense, anything is possible.  No character is safe.  As Kepler repeatedly demonstrates with gruesome zeal.  The change from past tenses to present tense is certainly an adjustment each time one picks up a Killer Instinct novel, but Kepler’s writing and the excellent English translation ensure that it is an easy transition.

Lazarus sees the return of the two protagonists readers of the Killer Instinct series have come to follow.  Joona Linna is the highly intelligence and calculating detective whom we have followed since the beginning of the series.  Ostensibly the main character at first, Kepler has made it increasingly clear that the books are not just about him.  As a Swede originally of Finnish origin, Joona does stand out somewhat among the cast of characters, and his accent does get called out infrequently during the course of each book.  After a brief stint in jail and time away from the police force, Lazarus sees him newly reinstated as a patrol officer before being pulled into a new, gruesome mystery.  Joining him once again is Saga Bauer, who we arguably spend more time with in this novel.  Like Joona, Saga is a capable detective, known for her extreme beauty and unmatched athleticism, with the added boon of having a name like “Saga.”  By this time, readers are more than familiar with the darkness and trials of Joona and his family, and Saga’s own darkness began to be explored in The Sandman, when she first interacted with Jurek.  Since then, the book makes clear, Jurek has been somewhat fascinated with her, while still remaining obsessed with Joona.  In his efforts to exact revenge against Joona, Saga becomes a target for destruction and, even as she tries to fight back and her knowledge of Jurek against him, she falls deeper into the rabbit hole of his evil.  For the majority of the book, Saga is actually the focus, with Joona taking a backseat for a time.  Because of this, we learn more about Saga than ever before, and Kepler shows just how interesting of a character she is.

As mentioned earlier, Lazarus marks the first in this series that a villain from a previous novel has returns.  In every other instance, the killer is either killed or arrested by the end of the story, and not heard from again as Joona and Saga move onto the next case.  However, Jurek Walter is different.  Originally appearing in The Sandman, his effects on the series cannot be overstated.  Prior to the fourth book, it was believed that Joona’s wife and daughter were killed.  But, in actuality, Joona had faked their deaths and sent them into hiding because of Jurek, the world’s most prolific serial killer.  While an old man, Jurek has maintained a remarkably good physique and is stated multiple times to be exceptionally strong and ruthless.  However, Jurek’s defining feature is that he does not kill his true targets.  Rather, he kills people on his way to the real target.  Some people he kills just because they’re in his way, other people to frame someone else.  But, mostly, he kills to drive his targets to the utter depths of despair.  His goal is not to kill Joona or Saga himself, but instead drive them so far that they eventually commit suicide instead.  He is a master at cold reading people and gathering information, using that to manipulate everyone to his whims.  Even when someone like Saga thinks they are turning the tables, they are just playing into his hands once again.  This time, Jurek is joined by a newcome to the series, a man calling himself The Beaver.  We do not learn much about this new accomplice, just that he is responsible for a series of violent murders throughout Europe and believes he has the supernatural ability to predict the order of death of everyone in a room.  He is also prone to fits of extremely violent rage despite his normally calm demeanor.  Lazarus also sets up the Beaver as a possible future antagonist for our heroes to deal with.  Kepler truly has a talent for creating twisted villains.

For anyone who has not read the novel yet, be warned that past this point lies spoiler territory.  The ending of Lazarus makes some choices and sets up future novels in such a way that I just cannot ignore!  Turn back now if you care about reading the ending unspoiled.

Spoiler warning out of the way, it is time to discuss the ending of the novel and the fate of Saga Bauer.  My personal favorite character in the series, Saga is sent through one intense trial after another, constantly on the verge of breaking.  First, Jurek kidnaps her father and uses him to manipulate Saga into doing his bidding.  Because the characters did not take Joona’s warnings seriously at the start, Jurek is able to operate behind the scenes for far too long.  While Saga comes up with some ingenious plans to betray Jurek and turn the tables, it is eventually revealed that he had seen through her motivations when a raid goes terribly wrong and Saga shoots and kills her own father, mistaking him for Jurek.  Later, in her grief, Saga accidentally leads Jurek and the Beaver to her teenage sister’s safe house, resulting in the girl’s kidnapping as well.  During this time, Saga also inadvertently led Jurek to Joona’s safe house, where he spends most of the novel hiding with his now young adult daughter.  By the end of the book, with our heroes finally “victorious” over Jurek and his death finally confirmed, Saga is still left broken.  Her young sister does not survive the ordeal and, Saga does exactly what Jurek had always planned for her to do.  Stealing a scalpel, she locks herself in a hospital bathroom and cuts her own wrists.  As she bleeds out on the floor, and someone tries to break down the door, Saga is visited by the visage of an angel. 

On a first read, it appears Kepler has allowed a sentimental scene to send this character out.  However, on a second read, and referencing the following chapter, it is strongly hinted that the “angel” is actually the Beaver on his way out of the hospital after deciding not to kill another character.  For unknown reasons, he may have saved Saga’s life.  Personally, I hope this is the case, partly because it would be an intriguing set up for the Beaver’s next appearance.  But mostly because of how much I enjoy reading Saga’s sections of this series.  Although the argument could be made that Joona is the “main” character, Saga has always been more interesting, and Lazarus made the wise choice to push her towards the forefront for most of the book while Joona stepped back. 

This review has already run longer than any other review on this blog, which certainly says something about my love for the Killer Instinct.  But it also says something about intricate and interesting Lars Kepler’s series of murder mysteries really is.  There is always more to say, more to discuss.  Lazarus continues the trend of previous novels of showcasing the darkness and depravity people are capable of, but also shows how willing our protagonists are to go to extreme lengths to stop such people.  Despite their victories, however, the victories always come at a cost.  Sometimes a very severe cost, as with the fate of Saga Bauer in this book.  Luckily, English readers do not have to wait much longer for the next entry.  The Mirror Man, originally published in 2020 in Sweden, is set to release in English in January of 2022.  It is inevitable that Joona will return for the next tale, leaving only one outstanding mystery left.  Will Saga Bauer be returning as well?  One can only hope.

Lazarus can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: The Witch’s Heart, by Genevieve Gornichec

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