Today I’m continuing my catch up with the Varg Veum series by Gunnar Staalesen with a review of The Writing on the Wall, the second english language translation released. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
This is one of Scandinavia’s top crime writers in the tradition of Henning Mankell.
It was one of those days in February of which there are far too many, despite its being the shortest month of the year. February is the year’s parenthesis. The tax forms have already been sent in and the tourist season has not yet started: there is nothing on the schedule. Greyish-brown slush lay in the gutters and the hills around the city were barely visible through the fog. Like the golden buttons on the waistcoat of a forgotten snowman, you could just make out the lights of the funicular up the hillside and the street lamps were lit even in the middle of the day…
In this crime drama detective Varg Veum’s adventures lead him into a dark world of privileged teenage girls who have been drawn into drugs and prostitution. The situation worsens when the local judge is discovered in a luxury hotel, dead and clad only in women’s lingerie. Called in by anxious parents to look for a missing daughter and explain the judge’s death, Varg finds clues that lead him only deeper into Bergen’s criminal underworld.
I’m really enjoying playing catch up in the world of Varg Veum. He’s is such an interesting character, not entirely what you might be expecting from a Private Investigator and certainly not in the Raymond Chandler style that most people would probably envisage. He’s a guy with a real heart, a soft spot for the more personal and sensitive cases, not interested in chasing a quick buck with an infidelity case, but happy to go on the hunt for a missing person, especially if that person is vulnerable or, as in the case of Torild Skagestøl, a sixteen year old girl whose mother engages Varg’s services to locate her. As Varg tells her himself he is less PI and more Sociologist, and it is this background that gives Varg, and this series, their human touch.
This is a short read but packed with mystery, misdirection and scenes that will both shock, amuse and horrify you in equal measure. The opening scenes are certainly memorable, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how they could possibly tie in with the rest of Varg’s story, but they do. As with any socio-political themed tale, this book takes readers to some relatively dark places, but all from the safe distance of Varg’s newly gained knowledge rather than any gratuitous or graphic observations and direct action. Gunnar Staalesen takes a subject which in the time the book was set would have been shocking enough, but is still very much relevant and sadly, believable, today. If you think about all of the headlines of the past ten to twenty years, of grooming, abuse, assaults, the story is infused with a very vivid kind of realism, bit never taken to the extremes. The author explores much more the emotion and impact of those left behind, the psychological aspects of the story, than he does on the perpetration of the crime itself.
I have to be honest, as much as I had sadly guessed part of the direction of the story, the author still managed to completely blind side me as some of the eventual truth is revealed. It is a story of real tragedy. Of loss, of family and of an abuse of trust by those with power and those with authority. It is handled in a sensitive manner, but still brings readers to the heart of the matter. With Gunnar Staalesen’s ability to paint such a clear picture of Varg’s life and surrounds, he transports us to Bergen, the stark and rich imagery letting us experience all the sights, sounds and complexities of city life. The more he experiences, the more weary Varg seems to become, but the more I like him as a character and I look forward to revisiting his world soon.
About the Author
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 20 titles, which have been published in 24 countries and sold over two million copies. Twelves film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007, starring the popular Norwegian actor Trond Epsen Seim. Staalesen, who has won three Golden Pistols (including the Prize of Honour), lives in Bergen with his wife. Cold Hearts, Yours Until Death, The Consorts of Death, and The Writing on the Wall are all published in English by Arcadia Books.