The Sandman (2012), by Lars Kepler (the pseudonym for a Swedish husband-and-wife writing team) is about a serial killer who has been kidnapping and killing family groups over the ten years he has been in jail. How is that possible? This is one of the questions the novel explores as it narrates the efforts of detectives to discover the cukprit’s methods and, possibly, to recover victims not yet dead.
The novel is effectively plotted out in a series of 181 short chapters. There is a systematic quality to the narrative, an element more of calculation than creative invention. One can easily imagine how the writers developed their plot before writing the first chapter. Whether this happened I don’t know. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing for novels of this type, though perhaps the method should be better hidden. Yet the novel works, and if events transpire with inevitability, we remain more than interested enough to follow their development.
Jurek Walter, the serial killer at the novel’s center is, like all great fictional serial killers, a master genius and a psychopath. He covers his traces so effectively that it is impossible to know anything about his methods and whereabouts. But the detectives gradually find clues and witnesses who’ve noticed details that begin to fit together, especially when one of the victims is discovered walking across a bridge during a snowstorm in the darkness of night after he was declared dead years before. The victim provides clues that, while at first not particularly revealing, begin to match up with other clues. The lead detective Joona Linna is capable of significant feats of deduction and leaps of faith. Some of the connections he and his colleagues make are difficult to follow. An additional wrinkle in the novel is that Linna changed the identities of his wife and child and sent them to another city so that the killer won’t target them. Linna rarely sees them.
How truly intelligent and wily can a serial killer be? The Hannibal Lecter model introduced a killer with refined tastes and crafty methods, an evil Übermensch. Subsequent serial killers in fiction and film have had to meet and exceed his model. The Sandman’s killer challenges the reader’s credulity. How can the killer do what he apparently does while locked up in jail? How does he know so much about the detectives who interview him? How does he know so much about what is going on outside the prison where he is confined in apparent isolation from the world? And why is he killing? The novel provides a back story that, while convincing, is not ingenious. Revenge is his motive. As for his methods, the novel provides an explanation that is more or less a narrative deus ex machina. I saw it coming.
Why do such killers fascinate? They are agents of random death which, in the end, no one can elude. They signify the potential depths of human murderousness. They often are avenging angels (or demons, if you prefer), punishing the unwitting sinner. All of the guilty should be wary. Their presence in our imagination undermines and dismantles the illusory surface of stability on which sanity depends.