A Year of Orenda – Wolves At The Door by Gunnar Staalesen

Today is on with Varg Veum week and the next book in Gunnar Staalesen’s brilliant series, Wolves at the Door. Now this is probably closest linked to the action in. Wolves In The Dark where Varg’s life was turned upside down. The story had me hooked and I am growing to love the series more and more with each read. Here’s what the book is all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy

About the Book

One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault … crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing.

While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play … and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large.

Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark … they are at his door. And they want vengeance.

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My Thoughts

Well … this book. First off, let me say that you should not let the blurb put you off. Whilst this is a book which contains themes linked to child abuse, it is not a book about child abuse. What it is though is a kind of sequel to Wolves in the Dark, in as much as a book that is part of a series can truly be a sequel. Where is in the first book, Varg Veum stood accused of downloading indecent images of children, a charge that he was completely innocent of, in Wolves in the Dark, Veum finds himself back in that dark and murky world but this time not striving for his freedom, striving to save his own life. It is a complicated case that Veum finds himself drawn into, one made a touch easier for the reader to understand if they have read the other book first, but one which also stands well on its own for those who have not.

The story opens with Veum returning home from a case and nearly being run down. It is clear that this was no near accident, that whoever was driving the vehicle was targeting him deliberately. The question is why. When he later discovers that two of the three men he stood accused with, all three of the others convicted, are now dead, he suspects it may have links back to that dark period in his not so distant past and is determined to find out who would have the greatest motive to see the men dead. Their victims perhaps? An aggrieved family member? What soon becomes clear to Veum is that in as case as dark and horrific as this one, the victims are spread far and wide and motive is something that no-one is lacking.

The dark elements of this novel are so well handled, the disgusting nature of the back story neither glossed over or trivialised, and never once made to feel graphic in any way, and yet you always have that underlying sense of uneasiness, perhaps even revulsion, for the crimes that you know are at the heart of the case. There is only really one scene in which the full extent of the case becomes real for the reader, but the author manages to keep it the right side of the line in terms of decency whilst still driving the story on as it needed. It is a very fine line, but once walked with great poise and balance taking the reader to the edge without it feeling unnecessarily uncomfortable. It still made me pause, made my heart skip just a fraction of a beat, but not so much I felt compelled to stop reading. Child abuse, however you wish to look at it – physical, verbal, sexual – should be uncomfortable, not entertaining, and the author has handled it in a way which is sensitive and yet compelling.

I love the character of Varg Veum. He has such a strong moral compass, such a sense of right and wrong that you cannot help but be drawn along by him. You do get a sense of a weariness within him, but also a determination that he cannot and will not give up, no matter the consequences. His history in Social Work makes him very in tune with this case, his constant presence, making him a thorn in the police’s side, but you know that there is a grudging respect for him too, no matter how many problems he brings to their door.

This book has a great emotional depth which handled badly could be draining for the reader but for me actually pulled me further into the story. When we start to meet some of the characters whose lives have been irreparably altered by the events of the past, you begin to understand the extent of the historic abuse without ever needing to be taken there. In particular, the character of Laila has a truly harrowing past and although it is not necessarily portrayed in detail, enough is made clear to allow the reader to feel horror and sympathy for the woman she has since become. Her characters, her flaws, her mistakes, are all very real, very credible, and add the heart and soul to an already harrowing story.

As a reader, this book puts you in a very difficult position morally. It will have you thinking about the very nature of vigilante justice and whether two wrongs can ever make a right. It is hard to feel any sympathy for the murder victims, especially as the full extent and devastating reach of their crimes becomes clear, which always intrigues me as a reader as I am never sure if you want to see justice done or not. But knowing that Veum may be the next victim, being invested in him as a character and understanding his innocence, I found myself wanting him to find the person or persons responsible, if only to see him safe. I must admit I was not that worried about the others or the fates that befell them. Harsh, but true, even if I don’t approve wholly of vigilantism or, following the proper path of justice, any discussion of the death penalty for that matter.

As well as character, you get a strong sense of place in these novels, the author bringing Norway to life, be it the heart of Bergen or the more isolated, remote or rural settings in which some of the action takes place. The atmosphere matches the tone of the novel perfectly, the oppressive and cold post Christmas weather, the short winter days reflective of the underlying threat which is ever present. There are moments of drama and moments of quiet reflection, the mood waxing and waning as the story dictates, but always drawing the reader in, making you feel part of the action and yet safely distanced from it too. The result is strangely hypnotic, with a story that you know you cannot say that you loved or perhaps even enjoyed, but that you recognise for its beautiful complexity and the absolute mastery of the author in creating a world that just draws reader in.

A shout out also to translator, Don Bartlett, who has done a fabulous job as always.

I was exceedingly late to this series but I have to say that I’m a big, big fan now. Varg Veum is one of those characters I just want to read more about. Like an treasured old friend, I can’t wait to catch up with Varg Veum again.

About the Author

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Gunnar Staalesen was born in Bergen, Norway in 1947. He made his debut at the age of twenty-two with Seasons of Innocence and in 1977 he published the first book in the Varg Veum series. He is the author of over twenty-three titles, which have been published in twenty-six countries and sold over five million copies. Twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007, starring the popular Norwegian actor Trond Epsen Seim, and a further series is currently being filmed. Staalesen, who has won three Golden Pistols (including the Prize of Honour) and the Petrona Award, and been shortlisted for the CWA Dagger, lives in Bergen with his wife.

Books by Gunnar Staalesen

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