Three years ago, this husband-and-wife crime-writing team had a hit thriller — and a huge secret. Now they're back with their second Stieg Larsson-influenced novel.

By Rob Brunner
Updated July 06, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Hypnotist

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Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril were heading to bed when they noticed a weird blinking light in the garden of their weekend home on the western coast of Sweden. It was almost midnight, totally dark, and their three daughters were asleep upstairs. The flicker — now clearly a flashlight — was moving closer. Was it their neighbor out looking for a lost dog? Or something more sinister? Somebody knocked. Alexandra ran and hid. Alexander pulled open the door. What he found on the other side was exactly what the couple had been fearing most.

At the time, the Ahndorils had a big secret. It was August 2009, and for weeks the Swedish media had been frantically tracking the mysterious author of a hot new thriller called The Hypnotist, attributed to the pseudonym Lars Kepler. The book was a sensation, but nobody had a clue who had written it. Could it be Swedish mystery legend Henning Mankell? Popular crime novelist Camilla Läckberg? Some total unknown? The media tore into the story. One paper even created a hotline for tips. But only a handful of people knew the truth: that literary couple Alexandra, a prominent historical novelist, and Alexander, the author of what he calls ”postmodern, quite difficult books,” were behind the blood-soaked best-seller. ”We didn’t even tell our families or our children,” says Alexander. ”We thought if we told people, they would be forced to lie on our behalf, and we didn’t want to put our families in that position.”

The couple, married for 18 years, had long wanted to write together, but previous attempts had led to fights and aborted projects. Then the two had an idea: They could create a totally new ”author” who would write in a distinct voice. Suddenly their collaboration clicked. When they sat down to write The Hypnotist, inspiration came from Stieg Larsson (the name Lars is a tribute) and Hollywood action movies. ”We were watching The Bourne Identity,” Alexandra recalls, ”and we said, ‘This is so exciting! We have to transfer this feeling into text.”’ The resulting novel introduced a detective named Joona Linna, who teams up with a former hypnotist to solve a series of unusually vicious crimes. The book was an immediate best-seller when it came out in the U.S. last summer; a follow-up, The Nightmare, hits American stores July 3.

The Ahndorils were eager to keep their identities hidden, but when Alexander opened the door that night three years ago, he was confronted by a pair of reporters, one with a camera, the other thrusting a copy of The Hypnotist at him. ”They told us to admit we were the writers behind Lars Kepler,” says Alexander, who still isn’t sure how they figured it out. ”We said, ‘It’s too late to talk to journalists,’ and closed the door. I felt panic. I felt angry and scared. We thought, ‘Well, is everything destroyed?”’

The next day, the couple — who had promised themselves never to lie about Lars Kepler — held a press conference to confirm the journalists’ suspicions. Finally their friends and family knew the truth. ”Oh, they were shocked,” says Alexandra with a laugh. ”I don’t think they have gotten over it yet, actually. Sweden is a small country, and the literary world is even smaller. It was like we broke the biggest taboo by writing a thriller. But we really enjoy this genre. We think it’s more difficult to write a good thriller than a literary book.” It turned out the Ahndorils needn’t have worried about being exposed: They love traveling the world and meeting fans — plus, as Alexander points out, it’s now much easier to do research.

The couple’s latest novel, The Nightmare, finds Detective Linna partnering with a tough young female investigator to crack a mystery involving the Swedish weapons industry, the situation in Darfur, and classical music (it’s considerably more entertaining than it sounds). ”This book is about temptations,” says Alexander. ”It’s devil’s contracts. You think that you can make a good deal with the devil, but you always lose control over the situation, even though you maybe get what you wish for the most.”

Like The Hypnotist, The Nightmare is filled with harrowing scenes of brutality that are hard to imagine percolating in the minds of two well-mannered Swedes. ”Yes, I know, it’s violent,” says Alexandra. ”But we think our books are quite optimistic. Terrible things happen all the time in real life. In the book we can bring in heroes and save people and catch the perpetrators and get the answers. For us it’s kind of a way of turning the world right again.”

The Ahndorils have already written a third Joona Linna book, The Fire Witness, which opens with a horrifying crime inside a mental hospital. They’re now working on a fourth, and Lasse Hallström is directing a movie version of The Hypnotist. With everything that’s going on, it seems unlikely that they’d find time to take on any more projects. But if they did, it’s possible we’d never know. After all, they’ve fooled the world once, and it would be easy enough to make up another pseudonym. ”Yes, we think about that,” says Alexander with a laugh. ”Maybe we’ll do that. Maybe we’ve already done it.”

Episode Recaps

The Hypnotist

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