This week’s post is from Spanish crime fiction lover Jose Ignacio Escribano who takes us on a visit to Norway to catch up with the latest installment of a series featuring a ‘slightly’ alcoholic private detective who’s been on the case since the late 1970’s.
Like many other authors, I discovered Gunnar Staalesen’s books through Maxine Clarke’s blog, Petrona. Paraphrasing Maxine COLD HEARTS ‘has the added advantage of being translated by the superb Don Bartlett, who also translates (among other authors) Jo Nesbo and K. O. Dahl’. In addition to that COLD HEARTS is eligible or, to be more accurate, can be submitted for the 2014 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.
The story, like most if not all the books in the series, is set in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. Varg Veum, the leading character is a private investigator. Staalesen had said about him in a 2010 interview with The Scotsman:
“Varg Veum was born in 1942, so he’s five years older than I am; he was 34 when I created him,” says Staalesen, who introduced his flawed detective – a “slightly” alcoholic ex-social worker and the divorced father of one son – in 1977 in Bukken til havresekken (which translates, enigmatically, as Goat of Geese), with the words: “In the beginning was the office, and in the office I sat.”
The story is narrated in a long flashback. For some reason, Veum can’t take it out of his head. He was working on this case in January 1997, six months ago. On a Monday morning, Veum receives a visit from Hege Jensen in his office. She was in the same class as his son Thomas at secondary school. If she was his age, she must be around twenty-five. In fact, they had been dating for awhile. Now, to make a living, she sells herself. Since last Friday, she hasn’t seen her friend Margrethe, Maggi for short. That day she turned down a punter and Tanya took him instead. When Tanya came back, she was a flood of tears, all bruised and beaten. Hege can’t even consider going to the police. ‘You know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi’. Veum decides to take up the case.
After an unpleasant encounter with two unfriendly characters, Kjell and Rolf, Veum finds out they were driving a car belonging to a firm called Malthus Invest. ‘What they invested in was not clear from the name, but it was obviously everything from property to what they would no doubt prefer to call the entertainment industry.’ Instead of browsing the Internet, Veum believes it safest to skim through the telephone directory. ‘There was one person in Bergen with the surname Malthus. Oddly enough his first name was Kjell.’ He couldn’t find anyone called Margrethe Monsen. Nor, for that matter, Hege Jensen. Since he didn’t feel competent enough to use the Internet for detective work, Veum rang Karin Bjorge to ask if she would mind checking a name for him. A meal at Pascal’s was much more his style. Karin finds one Margrethe Monsen with a Minde address, born on 14 April 1970. Her father Frank died four years ago. Her mother Else has the same address as Margrethe, Falsens vei. An older sister, Siv, lives in Landas and her younger brother, Karl Gunnar is in prison.
Next, Veum, heads to the red light district and finds Tanya. Despite her initial reluctance, finally, she tells him they were two Norwegian, way over fifty. Only one did it. The other waited around the corner. When she tried to get away, he held her down. The one in the outside got into the backseat, placed a rope round her neck and threatened to tighten it. She remembers it was a black car and the first three numbers on the plate.
As he tries try to find out more, Veum will have to face a brutal reality. Soon the first body will be found, and it won’t be the last. Under each stone that he raises, some dark secret is hidden. Ultimately the pattern of wounded people, worm-eaten lives, and hearts long since grown cold proves deadly – for someone. (Arcadia Books).
COLD HEARTS is excellent crime fiction. The story is intelligent and very well written. It does have a great sense of place. The characters are credible, Varg Veum turns out to be extremely interesting. The plot is well structured and, at the end, all the different pieces of the puzzle will fit with each other. Staalesen provides us with a view of the welfare state that may not be for everyone taste, but no one can ignore its existence, and thus he adds an element of social criticism that is thought-provoking. This is a highly recommended book, by a superb writer, unfortunately not very well known.
author: Gunnar Staalesen
original language: Norwegian
translator: Don Bartlett
publication date (UK): 2013 (original publication 2008)
Jose Ignacio Escribano blogs at The Game’s Afoot where he takes the international flavour of crime fiction up a notch by reading and reviewing in both English and Spanish.