Translated by Don Bartlett
Reviewed by Gill Davies
Where Roses Never Die is my first Gunnar Staalesen novel. Staalesen is Norwegian and he has been successfully writing crime fiction since 1977, although few of his novels have been translated into English. He has published more than 15 bestsellers and there have been twelve film adaptations. He has also written historical fiction, children’s fiction and plays. Presumably the success of ‘Scandinavian Noir’ has encouraged translation (this book was published in Norway in 2012) and the cover and inside pages contain plaudits from Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo, Maxim Jakubowski and a series of crime and thriller bloggers. The novels feature a private detective called Varg Veum who, like Rankin’s Rebus, has aged with each novel. The back-dating of this latest one is presumably a way of reviving the character by covering a case from 2002.
Varg Veum apparently translates as ‘wolf in a holy place’ – in other words, an outsider. And it’s that American tradition of the private eye that we find here. He is, inevitably, a loner, a problem drinker, divorced and short of clients. He is the truth-teller, the man of principle, whose poverty and messy private life are signs of integrity. There are very deliberate echoes of Philip Marlowe in the characterisation, including humour and the occasional florid metaphor. (‘Behind a tatty desk … sat a big, burly man, looking like a fatted pig two weeks before Christmas and as endearing as an aching abscess on your backside.’) But Staalesen isn’t Chandler – the imagery can seem forced and the plotting can feel plodding. However, the author knows his craft and the sequence of events, with twists and turns and several surprises, kept me engaged. Two apparently separate crimes that took place many years apart turn out to be connected.
The novel is set in Bergen on Norway’s south-western coast, and the detective travels between islands, suburbs and inner city. It is set in 2002 as Veum is employed to re-investigate the disappearance of a three-year old girl twenty-five years before, in 1977. The statute of limitations on the case is due to expire and the agents and witnesses in the original police investigation have dispersed or retired. The child’s mother has never recovered from her loss and both her husband and son left home because of her obsessive grief. But she has never given up hope that her daughter is alive and – of course – Veum is just the man to dig over the past, detect what was missed or concealed in the original investigation and bring closure for the mother. In the process, he uncovers some of the secrets behind the comfortable facade of late 1970s Norwegian middle class life. The disappearance occurred in a brand new architect-designed suburban housing development while the mother was at home and the child was playing outside the window in a sandpit. No-one saw anything and the police investigation soon ground to a halt. The original detective, Dankert Muus, still regrets their failure and so is able to give Veum a little help with the background of the case. But it is mainly Veum’s persistence, instinct and empathy that get him under the skin of the crime and enable him to solve it.
What I enjoyed most was the sense of place and the detailed descriptions of people and settings that really made the location come alive. For example, the retired detective’s kitchen has:
this year’s Bergen calendar, with a picture of sunshine, as usual …. Through the half-open door I glimpsed the sitting room with its well-used beige, moss-green and red-speckled furniture: an arm-chair, half of a sofa and one end of a well-polished coffee table. I saw an oil painting on the wall opposite: a nature motif from a fjord landscape of the kind you found in most Norwegian homes with ageing occupants.
Veum has to move across the city while investigating the crime, from the suburbs to the drug addicts’ spot in the park; to an island once remote but now connected by a bridge for commuters; to the opera house and shopping malls. In the process he is threatened and beaten up and lied to. But he also meets and sleeps with a beautiful woman who may well turn out to be a better option than the bottle of aquavit that most often accompanies his leisure moments. A rather formulaic private eye novel, then, but made fresh by its setting and kept alive by its characters.
Gunnar Staalesen, Where Roses Never Die (Orenda Books, 2016). 978-1910633090, 260pp., paperback.
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