Varg Veum, the hard-boiled Norwegian Private Eye created by Gunnar Staalesen, is something of a local hero in Norway’s second-largest city, Bergen. A life-size statue of the character stands in the town centre, and when Prince Charles visited in 2012, Staalesen was appointed his official guide. There have already been ten Norwegian film adaptations of the 20-part series made since 2007, in addition to radio plays and graphic novels. A new television series based on Varg, incorporating the plot of Where Roses Never Die, is planned for 2017 and is sure to receive a UK release. With over 4 million of Staalesen’s books sold worldwide to date, he’s in the top tier of Nordic crime writers. The translator, Don Bartlett, also comes highly commended, having worked with best-sellers Jo Nesbø, Karl Ove Knausgård and Per Pettersen.
As all of the previous novels haven’t been translated into English, it’s lucky that Staalesen skips lengthy backstories to jump straight into the action. Only very limited references are made to Varg’s previous cases, and you don’t need to have read any of the other books (I haven’t) to quickly catch up on the broad strokes of the source of his brooding nature.
Where Roses Never Die follows Varg as he investigates the disappearance of a three-year-old girl. Mette Misvaer vanished without a trace from the sandpit outside her home in September 1977. Her close-knit middle-class community in the tranquil suburb of Nordås was devastated, but their enquiries and the police produce nothing. Curtains twitch, suspicions are raised, but Mette is never found. Almost 25 years later, as the expiry date for the statute of limitations draws near, Mette’s mother approaches Varg, in a last, desperate attempt to find out what happened to her daughter.
The case is interwoven throughout the book with that of an unsolved, brutal robbery of a local jewellery store. A seemingly-random passer-by is murdered by the burglars – but the case thickens when Veum discovers that the victim had lived in the same complex as Mette at the time of her disappearance. As he starts to dig, he uncovers an intricate web of secrets, lies and shocking events that have been methodically concealed. The significance of the book’s title is only revealed in the very last pages.
It’s a suspenseful tale, and Staalesen cleverly constructs it through a series of interviews Veum conducts with the tightly-defined cast of characters and suspects, all with their own personal demons. He unearths secrets that had lain buried for decades – some more scandalous than others. Just how close-knit were the five families living at Nordås? Why did four of the five marriages end in divorce? What drove Joachim – eight years old at the time of Mette’s disappearance – to drug abuse in a rat-infested hostel? And can suspected paedophile Jesper Janeivik be connected to the crime? Staalesen is always one step ahead of the reader, mixing in plenty of misdirections and red herrings.
But ‘cosy crime’ this is not – it’s an incisive exploration of family dynamics and the complex web of human behaviour, mixed in with some abrasive social commentary. Founded by a visionary architect, the middle-class vision of co-operative life in Nordås quickly unravels. The co-op residents’ comfortable, almost decadent lives – probably extensively populated by Ikea furniture – are contrasted with those of the homeless in a city park, desperate thieves and unsavoury gangsters, exposing the seedy underbelly of Norwegian society. The only constant is unhappiness.
As you might expect from that summary, Varg is a proper Noir detective, complete with a tragic past, a drinking problem and an affinity for pessimism: “As in most areas of my life, I achieved only limited success, even as a Father Christmas.” But what elevated the character for me was his unwavering moral compass and dogged determination to see the case through for the sake of Mette’s mother. Staalesen also isn’t afraid to poke fun at his hero: Varg means ‘wolf’ in Norwegian, and a number of characters took the time to point out how weird this is.
Staalesen’s novel is sure to be a hit with fans of Scandi crime. He certainly deserves far more exposure in the English-speaking market, and Orenda Books’ attractive repackaging of the series should help to achieve this.
Also available: We Shall Inherit the Wind
Where Roses Never Die is published 15 June by Orenda
Post by Clara
Find more crime fiction here