Detective Joona Linna is on leave dealing with personal and professional issues when he gets pulled into the investigation of a horrific murder at a home for wayward teenage girls. One girl is dead, and another is missing. The local police want to close the case quickly, especially after they discover a bloody hammer under the missing girl's bed. But a woman claiming to see visions of the murdered girl insists there is more going on than meets the eye, and Joona is inclined to believe her. As he digs deeper into the case, he finds himself in dark and dangerous territory. This compelling thriller will have you turning pages long into the night.
About the Author
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Elisabet Grim is fifty-three years old. Her hair is streaked with gray, but her eyes are bright and happy, and when she smiles, one of her front teeth juts out impishly.
She is a nurse at Birgittagården, a state-approved home for especially troubled girls north of Sundsvall. It’s a small, privately owned residence. Rarely are there more than eight girls there at a time. They range from twelve to seventeen in age. Many are drug addicts when they arrive. Almost all have a history of self-injury—eating disorders, for instance. Some can be violent. For these girls, there is no alternative to Birgittagården, with its alarms and double-locked doors. The next step would be prison or forced confinement in a psychiatric unit. This home, by comparison, is a hopeful place, with the expectation that the girls can make it back someday to open care.
As Elisabet often says, “It’s the nice girls who end up here.”
Right now, Elisabet is savoring the last bite of a bittersweet bar of chocolate. She can feel her shoulders begin to relax.
The day started well but the evening was hard. There were classes in the morning, and in the afternoon, the girls spent time at the lake. After the evening meal, the housemother went home, leaving Elisabet in charge on her own. The night staff was recently let go when the company changed hands. Elisabet had sat in the nurse’s office, catching up with reports, while the girls watched television, which they were allowed to do until ten.
And then she’d heard the yelling. It was loud, very loud. She’d hurried to the television room, where Miranda was beating up tiny Tuula. Miranda was screaming that Tuula was a slut and a whore. She’d yanked the little girl off the sofa and was kicking her in the back.
It was not unusual for Miranda to explode violently. Elisabet was used to her outbursts. She pulled her away from Tuula, and Miranda slapped Elisabet in the face. Elisabet was used to that, too. Without further discussion she led Miranda down the hall to the isolation room. Elisabet wished Miranda a good night, but Miranda didn’t answer. She just sat on the bed and studied the floor with a secretive smile as the nurse shut and locked the door behind her.
Elisabet was scheduled to have a private talk with the new girl, Vicky Bennet, but after the conflict, she found she was exhausted and couldn’t face it. When Vicky came by and timidly mentioned that it was her turn for a chat, Elisabet put her off. This made Vicky so unhappy, she broke a teacup and slashed her stomach and wrists with the sharpest piece.
When Elisabet checked on her a while later, Vicky was sitting in her room with her hands in front of her face and blood running down her arms.
The wounds were superficial. Elisabet washed the blood off, wrapped gauze around the girl’s wrists, and put a Band-Aid on her stomach. And Elisabet comforted her, soothing her with sweet names, telling her not to worry, coaxing her until a tiny smile crossed the troubled girl’s face. For the third night in a row, Elisabet gave the girl ten milligrams of Sonata so she could sleep.
Copyright © 2011 by Lars Kepler
Translation copyright © 2013 by Laura A. Wideburg
Reading Group Guide
Taking the page-turner to new heights, The Fire Witness has drawn thousands of captivated readers into the world of Swedish police detective Joona Linna (who is now under investigation himself). The third book in Lars Kepler's pulse-pounding series opens with a gruesome death at a home for troubled girls. When one of the patients escapes, leaving behind a bloody bed with a hammer under the pillow, the case seems to be solved. But Linna refuses to accept easy answers as he follows a trail of even more sinister evidenceultimately leading to a confrontation with the madman who destroyed Linna's family. As he tries to piece together the facts, Linna connects with a "medium" who falsely claims she can communicate with the dead. But when she begins receiving disturbing, all-too-real visions of the crime scene, the very essence of eyewitness testimony is turned on its head.
Brimming with provocative questions about the mind's eye and its power to heal and to destroy, The Fire Witness is sure to spark intriguing conversations. We hope that the following discussion topics will enrich your reading group's experience.
1. As you read the opening scenes, who was your first suspect? What did you think Elisabet had seen?
2. The authors define a medium as "someone who claims to have paranormal talent." Do you agree? Did Flora do any harm when she staged séances? What does her story indicate about the very real power of memory?
3. In The Fire Witness, how does evil come into being? What allows it to flourish?
4. Which is Linna's greater strength: his intellect or his empathy? Why do his mind and his heart also get him in trouble with authority?
5. In the opening scene, we learn that Elisabet often says, "It's the nice girls who end up here." What fears do the girls of Birgittagården have in common? What determines whether they will be drawn to someone like Tobias, who sees them as easy prey, or someone like Elin, who wants to protect them at any cost?
6. As Vicky's case was brought before a judge, whose testimony did you believe? How did your opinion of Vicky change throughout the novel?
7. Flora was failed by the many adults who were entrusted with caring for her. What did they hope to gain by making her a scapegoat? In punishing her and making her the target of their continual suspicion, how did they transform their own sense of reality, and her perception of herself?
8. When you discovered how Dennis became a refuge, what did this reveal about the connection between Vicky and her mother? What was her mother able to provide despite her hardships?
9. What was the killer's greatest advantage in gaining trust and staying above suspicion? Ultimately, what motivated these crimes? Who was responsible for them?
10. Discuss the novel's title and the horrific lie it refers to. How does Flora's childhood echo the experiences of other courageous witnesses captured in the novel?
11. Discuss the power struggles among the Birgittagården girls. How do they perpetuate the broken bonds they've experienced? Why was Elin successful in reaching past Vicky's pain?
12. How did the story line of Pia and Danteand the vulnerability of innocent bystandersaffect you?
13. Just as the novel's girls are separated from their families, Linna's daughter grows up without a father. Did Linna make the right decision in creating a new identity for Lumi and Summa? Would you have made the same choice?
14. As you read the closing scene, what did you predict for Jurek Walter? Linna thinks of him as the Devil: how is his evil different from what was revealed in this book? How does it underscore the past evil Linna has seen in The Hypnotist and The Nightmare?