Every reader wants to get hooked on a good series, where the author continuously writes new entries featuring favorite characters and new stories within the same framework. While the trilogy is very common in that regard, it is also common for authors to keep a series progresses for many more than three books. Something like The Wheel of Time has more than fourteen entries, while The Dresden Files received its seventeenth entry in 2020. However, with each new book in a long series, there is an ever-growing risk that the author takes. How do they keep their readers interested, while also providing the same types of stories that drew them in the first place? Things need to change from book to book to keep the story and characters moving and developing, but change things too much and you may lose readers. But if an author does not take any risks at all, they also run the risk of losing readers as they will not see a reason to read new entries. There is a careful balancing act that authors have to consider, balancing the storytelling with the business of selling books, but readers will love the ones who manage it, even if they are unaware of the work going into each new book.
The Killer Instinct series of Swedish crime novels that began in 2009 with The Hypnotist, introducing the literary world to detective Joona Linna. With the release of The Mirror Man in English earlier this year, this series is now eight novels deep and still going strong. Swedish crime fiction is basically its own genre at this point, separate from the crime fiction you might see in the United States or England. It can be characterized by a particularly dark tone, and confronts the realities of Sweden head-on. It is no uncommon to see frank depictions of neo-nazis or misogynists in these books. In particular, the original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson translates to Men Who Hate Women. Lars Kepler seems to have challenged themselves to up the ante, so to speak, with every new book. Following the events of the previous novel, Lazarus, and the final, apparent, demise of serial killer Jurek Walter, The Mirror Man introduces a new, twisted serial killer in a more standalone series entry. But is this new villain and mystery enough to keep the series fresh and keep if from starting to feel stale?
It is not clear how much time has passed between books, but The Mirror Man sees Joona Linna back to working full-time as a police detective as he encounters a new, dark mystery dating back several years. In keeping with the series trend of introducing demented villains and serial killers who redefine the concept of evil, the book’s villain is only known as Caesar for most of the story. We never see events from Caesar’s point-of-view, and as such his characterization is left up to the perceptions of the people who encounter him. The book opens with paired harrowing tales in which young, teenage girls either go missing or die, setting the modus operandi for Caesar’s operations throughout the story. Caesar is a serial killer defined by his religious conviction, a hardcore Christian extremist who kidnaps teenage girls under the belief that he is owed them. As the story continues, and the depths of his depravity become known, we also learn that Caesar continually rapes and murders countless girls, kidnapping more and more. The police only become aware of the crisis when Jenny Lind manages to escape his grasp after five years of imprisonment, only to be caught and executed in a public park. Like all Lars Kepler books, The Mirror Man is not for the faint of heart, and the story does not shy aware from the gory details of Caesar’s crimes, while managing to avoid the perverse titillation that some authors flirt with. Kepler wants readers to be rightfully horrified.
Like all the previous Killer Instinct novels, Joona Linna is back as the main character, although Kepler continues the trend of writing from multiple character points-of-view; some for a single chapter, others are major characters throughout the story. In the fiction, Joona is a fantastic detective, seeing things his coworkers and colleagues cannot, and often being key to solving the central mysteries. While the books do embrace the trope of a single characters who is needed to solve every problem, Joona is not perfect. He still makes mistakes and has difficulty relating to other people, as evidence by his relationship with his daughter, Lummi, in this book. After the events of Lazarus, The Mirror Man sees him struggling to reconnect with his daughter due to her seeing him kill Jurek Walter. This leads Joona to start thinking about the effect he is having upon the world, as well as the effect his work is having on him. The book carefully balances the competing, and correct, ideas that Joona has been irreparably damaged by his work and that he is absolutely essential to saving peoples’ lives. For most of the book series, Joona has been a fairly static character. He does not change often, being fairly stubborn in his ways. This is really the first time we spend time with his introspection on the page, and he never lets go of the thought process even as he is drawn even deeper into the mystery surrounding Caesar.
Aside from Joona, Kepler introduces two new characters who also serve as major actors in the mystery. Pamela and Martin Nordström are introduced in the early chapters, five years prior to the main events of the novel, around the same time Jenny Lind first goes missing. We see the happily married couple enjoy a much-needed vacation together, while learning about Martin’s minor battle with mental illness. Up until Pamela’s daughter, Alice, falls through the ice of a frozen lake and disappears. Cutting to the present day, Pamela is balancing her ongoing grief with her desire to move on, while Martin’s trauma at falling through the ice with Alice, but being rescued, has resulted in a severe form of PTSD. At first, it is unclear how these two play a role in the plot, until the police discover that Martin was present and witnessed Jenny Lind’s murder while out walking his dog. The major plot of the novel follows Pamela and Martin as they try to work through Martin’s mental blocks and PTSD to unlock his memories of the night, while also trying to rebuild their lives and potentially adopt a teenage girl before she ages out of the foster system. Making Martin’s mental illness a key plot point is a risky move in a crime novel, but he is mostly treated with care and thoughtfulness.
Keen eyed readers of this book series will notice by now that this review has yet to mention a certain character. The deuteragonist to Joona Linna’s protagonist. It can be argued that she is more than that, that Saga Bauer is as much a protagonist as Joona is. Truth be told, I actually prefer reader about her to Joona. Joona can often come across as too perfect, too good at her job. Saga, aside from a fantastic name, is a little more flawed, while also being a great detective. Lazarus really threw Saga into the darkness with Jurek Walter, and her plot in that novel was both dark and gripping. It is not a spoiler by now, but Jurek’s actions during that book lead her to attempting suicide at the end of the story is an immensely enrapturing moment that left readers dying to know what happened to her. Unfortunately, this is one area where Kepler does not provide a satisfying delivery. Saga appears exactly twice in The Mirror Man, once during the epilogue to set up the next book, and has only one line of dialogue. She is totally removed from the story in every other regard, robbing readers of a potentially great storyline involving her recovery after the events of the previous novel. Hopefully the next book, The Spider, will bring her back to the forefront where she belongs.
Another point of criticism in The Mirror Man is its handling of mental illness. Intentionally or not, Kepler reinforces the idea that mentally ill people are inherently dangerous in some way, despite being much more likely to be the victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators. While Martin is handled well for the most part, he is not handled well throughout the entire story. A few other patients we meet in his psychiatric ward all exhibit dangerous mannerisms and the book only focuses on how dangerous they are to other people. Then there is Caesar himself. Without spoiling too much, the reveal of his identity is actually boring, while the explanation of how he came to be and his motivations are really good. His mental illness is almost portrayed as an explicitly good thing in the context of the story, but the book still runs into the trouble that he is a mentally ill person who is a serial killer, even if he only engages in violence when sane. Thankfully, Kepler makes it clear that his motivations are entirely based on his Christianity, taken to an uncomfortably familiar extreme degree. It is no great reveal to say that Christian extremists are extremely dangerous, but The Mirror Man turns the spotlight fully on them and engages with the violence and misogyny hiding behind the feeble veneer of “religion.”
Overall, The Mirror Man is a solid entry into the Killer Instinct series, even as it does not reach the same highs as previous novels. It very much feels like the type of middle chapter that arrives between a major resolution and the beginning of the next main event. That aside, Caesar is a great addition to the cast of villains Kepler has created, competing with them in darkness and depravity in a whole new way. The absence of Saga Bauer is keenly felt throughout the story, and it seems other readers feel the same way. Thankfully, Kepler teases her return to a starring role for the next book in this excellent series, and I hope her role will feel all the sweeter for her absence here. If you are looking for a good entry point to the series but do not want to return to the beginning, The Mirror Man is a great place to start. Just prepare for an honest look at darkness and depravity that will surely hold your attention on every page.
The Mirror Man can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 11 days
Next on the List: Destiny of the Dead, by Kel Kade