COLD HEARTS by Gunnar Staalesen

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.

ColdHeartsStaalesenLike 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.

Book Details:

author: Gunnar Staalesen
original language: Norwegian
translator: Don Bartlett
publication date (UK): 2013 (original publication 2008)

Contributor Details:

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.


DON’T LOOK BACK by Karin Fossum

This week’s much loved crime novel is, fittingly, a European favourite from Karen Meek the founder of Euro Crime: a site for fans and would-be fans of British and European crime fiction.

The UK paperback cover (2003 edition)

The UK paperback cover (2003 edition)

Karin Fossum’s DON’T LOOK BACK was first published in English in 2002, translated by Felicity David, and despite many recommendations it was four years before I got round to it. Only then did I realise what I was missing.

DON’T LOOK BACK is the second in the Inspector Sejer series but the first to be translated, the first book, IN THE DARKNESS, was only translated and published last year (2012). DON’T LOOK BACK is an absorbing whodunnit with an “exotic” (at the time) small town Norwegian setting and introduces the widowed and very tall Konrad Sejer and his sidekick, the younger Jacob Skarre.

Fossum throws the reader off, both at the beginning and the end of the book as it at first seems that a very young girl has gone missing and is in great danger but in fact that is not the case. Several of my reading group had to be reassured that the plot was going somewhere different before carrying, on as child murder even in fiction is still a taboo. And the ending contains some ambiguity – which turns out, after reading more of her books, to be somewhat of a Fossum trademark.

A US hardcover edition

A US hardcover edition

DON’T LOOK BACK is the most traditional police procedural of Fossum’s Sejer books with later books delving more into the psychology of people, and crimes where ordinary people commit a crime or have an accident which leads to a cover-up and the truth must be revealed.

I thoroughly recommend this series, especially the earlier books if you are more into plots and the later books if you like character and the whys of people’s behaviour.

Maxine was a huge fan too. From her reviews for Euro Crime:

  • CALLING OUT FOR YOU: “One of the best crime novels of its year, undoubtedly.”
  • THE WATER’S EDGE “This is a wonderful book, short and haunting, and beautifully naturally translated. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.”
  • BLACK SECONDS: “Fossum seems to write two different kinds of novels: sensitive procedurals focusing on simple, everyday-crimes crimes (such as DON’T LOOK BACK and CALLING OUT FOR YOU), and psychological thrillers based on original and twisted conceits (like WHEN THE DEVIL HOLDS THE CANDLE). BLACK SECONDS is of the former type. It deals with a simple, unflashy crime, one that could (and does) happen anywhere. This sad simplicity adds to the strange power of her novels, with their achingly realistic crimes, and their achingly realistic victims, their relatives and neighbours.”

I hope that if you haven’t given Karin Fossum a try already, you’ll do so now.

This review was first published at Euro Crime in March 2007 (reproduced with the permission of the site owner)

Book Details:

author: Karin Fossum (learn more at wikipedia)
original language: Norwegian
translator: Felicity David
publication date (UK): 2002

Contributor Details:

Karen Meek is a librarian, started the Euro Crime website ten years ago, has been a judge for the CWA International Dagger award for several years and in her spare time blogs about YA fiction. At Euro Crime you’ll find reviews, author bios and just about anything else you could need to know about crime fiction set in Europe or by European authors.,