I’m not sure I like direct comparisons between authors, it’s apples and oranges. However, Staalesen is often compared to Scandi-noir’s finest and most popular, so without naming names and with due respect to the virtues of the other superstar Nordic writers, I will add my two pennies’ worth in championing Staalesen: he is the simply most stylish, most elegant literary crime writer in Scandinavia. Staalesen’s novels most encapsulate the spirit of the great American PI novel and in many ways he is peerless. I don’t just enjoy his novels, I take great pleasure in the time I spend with them. There’s a warm comfortable feeling that comes with picking up a book and knowing almost instantly that it is going to be a great read. I’ve read many of the Varg Veum, Lone Wolf, novels, Staalesen is consistently excellent, not all top authors are. Fallen Angels is a bit special though. This is the eighth Veum novel, there are more than twenty in the series, some of the later novels translated before this one, this is the first time Fallen Angels has appeared in English and it’s a treat.
It’s easy to see why Staalesen is so respected. He has a clear insight into character and a deep understanding of humanity; the things that makes us who and what we are, especially when we slide towards the dark side or are unwittingly enmeshed there. Fallen Angels is, rightly, one of the books that established Staalesen as a godfather of Nordic noir and Veum, the fictional detective, has his own statue in Bergen; that’s how ingrained in Norwegian culture these novels are. It’s only conjecture but if Staalesen were American, if Veum inhabited some Mid West town or city, he would have a huge profile. Of course, that would mean losing the remarkable sense of time and place, the Norwegian character, that infuses all the Varg Veum novels and discerning readers would not want that. Crime aside, readers will find echoes of their own lives and relationships here, memories will be triggered, placing the reader inside the story. It’s intelligent and mature and enveloping. The pacing is calm, not slow but considered, nothing laboured, overworked or over explained, just plenty of room for savouring the story and the lives of the people on the pages. Of course, Staalesen knows how to obfuscate, to deflect and to amuse while presenting a highly entertaining mystery that is deeply satisfying. This is nothing short of a great read. Why was I so sure at the start that this would be a special book? Obviously, my familiarity with Veum helped but the opening at a funeral is superb. The seated mourners, as if in a classroom, knew each other as children – now some seats are empty. This scene is loaded with pathos, compassion and reflection. The perfect way to establish that amidst life there is death and at some point every person becomes aware of that.
1986, a wet December, Jan Petter’s funeral, a class reunion for those still left, some have already gone. Outside the chapel, Varg Veum sees Jakob Aasen for the first time since 1965. Jakob used to be in a band with singer, Johnny Solheim, (Johnny doesn’t do funerals), they are the only two surviving members of the Harpers. Varg and Jakob agree to meet up later for a drink; it’s some night, rolling back the years, reminiscing and picking up girls. Jakob suggests they go see Johnny in concert, he’s older, eclipsed by a brilliant young singer, Bella Bruflåt. Johnny doesn’t seem interested in his old friends and there’s an edgy moment when someone suggests Jakob caused a split between Johnny and his wife and that led to the band breakup. Jakob denies it to Varg, just the opposite, when his wife Rebecca left him a few years ago it was to go to Johnny, eventually she came back but now she’s gone again. Jakob suspects Johnny, he wants Varg to look into it for him, find her.
Varg is not long into the investigation before a body turns up. The inquiry has changed, this is now more than a favour for a friend. Varg is wary of Jakob and the labyrinth of lies that proliferate from the past. The investigation into the possible motive for murder is very personal for Varg, this is about his own past and the people he grew up with. Jakob’s wife Rebecca was his own first love but he left Bergen when they left school and when he came back Jakob and Rebecca were together.
Fallen Angels feels like a real slice of the dark side of life. Simply a must for any fan of the serious detective story. Among my books of the year.
Brilliantly translated by Don Bartlett.
Review by Paul Burke
Group read 5*
Personal read 5*
Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193065, 12/11/20.