It’s nighttime on the West Coast of Sweden. It’s a remote area, not quite uninhabited but nothing that anyone would mistake for populated. There are rocky, craggy beaches, lone lighthouses that seem to be plucked straight out of ancient literature and dropped into present-day with no explanation as to what we’re supposed to do with a lighthouse, and cabins dotted around the small towns.
One of those cabins is an escape. Two writers live there, having sought refuge from the rest of the country. They’ve lived there with their young children for a few months, but now that peaceful solace is about to be disturbed — and, fictional as it may sound, by a literal torch-wielding villager. The writers spot a light approaching in the distance, soon identifying it as a lantern carried by a strange man. He comes right out to this cabin, where they thought they could be anonymous, and pounds on the door.
But now, let’s journey back. It’s 2009 and a new crime novel has just hit the shelves in Sweden. The Hypnotist is a nightmare-inducing tale about Detective Joona Linna, who is dispatched to solve a gruesome triple murder. It is also an instant success. It shot to the top of the international best-sellers list, flying off the shelves faster than almost any of its genre. Scandinavia, not remotely new to the idea of a crime novel, what with their Stieg Larssons and their Jo Nesbos, is enthralled.
The Hypnotist is written by Lars Kepler, quickly revealed to be a pen name meant to disguise the true identity of the person (or…persons?) behind the novel, which landed on must-read and best-of lists around the world. No one, not Lars Kepler’s friends or family or even the publishing company knows who he or she (or…they?) is. The manuscript was submitted by a dummy email address: email@example.com with no identifying clues.
The Swedes do not take lightly to this mystery. This is not the first time a crime novel has been a best-seller nor the first time an author has used a pen name, but for some reason the whole thing strikes a nerve. Swedish media opened a 24-hour-a-day tip hotline and a national cable station hired a criminal profiler to create a profile of Lars on live television. All to no avail.
Back at the cabin, Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril — yes, those are their real names — hear the knock on the door. Alexander answers the intrusion to find a gossip journalist wielding the torch and is presented with the exclamation, “Admit it, you’re Lars Kepler.” They were caught.
The next day the Andorhils packed up their summer home and headed back to Stockholm, where their publishing house held a press conference to announce their true identities. The coverage of this occasion — and the Ahndoril’s admission that they, jointly, are Lars Kepler — managed to eclipse the engagement of Sweden’s own crown Princess. That the authors would go on to become international best-sellers, authors of six books (including several that were the most-sold in Sweden during their publication year), seems only natural.
Now that the authors have been exposed for years, they are, essentially, open books, which is why they are sitting on a couch in the EW offices, in the midst of their American press tour, telling this nearly unbelievable story.
The first thing to know about this couple is that they have not always been (at least on paper) one person. Both Alexander and Alexandra were authors before they started to collaborate, enjoying critical and commercial success but struggling with the solitary lifestyle of being a writer — they decided to collaborate to “sidestep the loneliness,” as Alexandra put it. After a few failed attempts at writing together, they arrived at the idea of a pen name.
“The key to the creation of our series was to create Lars Kepler,” explains Alexandra. “When we tried to write together our egos were in the way.”
They came up with the name, a tribute to fellow Swede Stieg Larsson, as well as a backstory for their alter ego: They decided he should be a teacher who experienced a traumatic personal loss and thus became agoraphobic, afraid of other people, who turned to writing to cope. That Kepler would create thrillers came because, well, they’re Swedish, and also out of a desire to solve the crimes that the real world could not.
Their collective process is meticulous and always starts with extensive research. B.E. (that’s before exposure) the Ahndorils had to work hard to keep their inquiries under wraps — with The Hypnotist they found themselves having Alexander’s brother (himself a working hypnotist) over for dinner and sneakily asking question after question about his business.
A.E. (after exposure) they were able to make those inspiration-seeking dinners official: They explained that the idea for The Sandman (their first American release) was borne from a former Mossad agent they met at a party. “I can absolutely see fragments of people I’ve meet in our books,” Alexandra says.
Once the main crime is decided the couple starts an outline of dozens (and dozens and dozens) of scenes that they write on individual note cards and hang on the wall. They spend several months mapping out each section of the book, moving the note cards around until everything seems perfect. And then, in true marital fashion, they sit side-by-side at computers and take turns hammering out the book. Despite the dark material that makes up their novels — gruesome murders, kidnappings, and serial killers — their process is surprisingly wholesome.
“Our desk is our old kitchen table,” laughs Alexandra. “It has all the traces of things we did with our kids, like baking gingerbread cookies.”
But all the seasonal baking in the world can’t completely erase the haunting memories of their source material. There are hazards to the job of crime novelist that go far beyond being stalked by torch-wielding villagers.
“The hardest part of writing crime fiction is reading, and talking, about real killers, real suffering, real victims,” says Alexandra before her husband chimes in: “With The Sandman we used all of the serial killer research we had done, combined with our deepest inner fear and what we got was Jurek Walter, our horrifying villain.”
The Sandman is the fourth novel in the series about Detectives Joona Linna and Sage Bauer, and has been hailed as the most disturbing yet. It’s also the first in the newly-translated editions to be released to U.S. audiences (it hit shelves in late February), so take that with a grain of salt. Without giving too much away, the story opens on a lone man found wandering on a railroad track, who is soon discovered to be a kidnapping victim presumed dead. That leads authorities to Walter, who has been in lockdown for years — in order to find his other victims the detectives need to go undercover inside a terrifying psych ward. Walter himself is so evil and manipulative that anyone working with him is required to wear earplugs to prevent being brainwashed.
The subject matter required hands-on research from the Ahndorils, including site visits at psychiatric hospitals and maximum security prisons. Alexander describes a claustrophobic situation that is not for the faint of heart: The facility they visited was home to some of the country’s most disturbed criminals, built out of underground tunnels so that the prisoners never see daylight, and used a lockdown system of transportation — the criminals walk to one part of the corridor and wait for the doors to close, then proceed to the next as one door opens, and so on — to prevent the staff from hostage situations.
“I was so happy there were two of us at that point,” he says. “You can Google these places, but to be there physically you see things and smell things that you would never know otherwise. You hear the echoes in the corridors.”
Alexandra admits she had nightmares every single night while they wrote The Sandman. “Sometimes we just sit and cry at the computer,” she elaborates. “I think you have to have this total connection with your feelings to write this stuff.”
That, of course, begs the question: Just how scary is too scary? The public hungers for these dark, twist-ridden crime novels but there is always the threat of wading into the simply gory. But the authors don’t see it that way: They believe writing is actually a coping mechanism for fears that would persist with our without their stories.
“For me, real life is much scarier than our books,” says Alexandra. “What scares me the most is the lack of mercy, in wars or in sadistic killers.”
Adds Alexander: “We have our own fears from everything out there in the real world, but we help cope with it in fiction. In books you can get answers, you can have heroes.”
Not all of their readers agree, but the fans clearly find some comfort in these books. After Sandman‘s release, publisher Knopf will roll out the rest of the Lars Kepler back catalog as well as a new release they just finished. Anonymous Content, the production company behind The Revenant and Spotlight, has purchased the rights to several of their novels and are working on big-screen adaptations. And all the while the couple plans to continue to churn out new novels.
In other words, for American audiences, this is just the beginning of Lars Kepler. Maybe next they’ll set a plot in a remote cabin in the Swedish woods — because when your own life is this much of a thrill, who needs fiction?