Staalesen’s latest Varg Veum novel, Wolves at the Door, is an accomplished piece of storytelling. A deftly plotted and perfectly paced mystery, it’s a tale that smoulders rather than explodes, but that allows the emotional impact of the topic to hit home even harder. The writing is taut and the dialogue sharp as befits a genuine classically styled hardboiled detective novel. The fact that Veum is drawn back into an investigation of a paedophile ring and his life is threatened adds to the tension of an incendiary story.
Staalesen is often referred to as the godfather of Norwegian noir, I’m sure I’ve done so myself, and I’m sure he is an important influence on new Nordic writers but he’s not just an example to others, he’s not done blazing a trail yet and this novel proves that he is still contemporary and relevant. I much prefer this kind of contemplative storytelling to the flashy serial killer thriller – its grittier, more real. Wolves at the Door deals with child abuse, it’s a tough subject, even in fiction it hits you in the gut, but it needs to be faced. In real life it’s something that really does destroy people, it cripples generation after generation and stains our communities. So it’s as important as any subject for a crime novel because it goes to the kind of society we live in. The quality of Staalesen’s writing shows in the way he makes it clear how devastating child abuse is without revelling in nastiness. Still, it’s heart-breaking and scary.
‘. . . Most children are like that. most children live safe, protected lives with parents who love them. But some – indeed, not only some, but all too many – experience the contrary, what should not happen . . .’
There’s a strong influence of the hardboiled American novel in Staalesen’s writing (Chandler and Hammett). If I say homage it seems to suggest a slavish devotion, on the other hand parody implies poking fun, whereas pastiche suggests copying – none of them quite fit, it’s somewhere in the middle. Staalesen’s love of American hardboiled detective fiction echoes throughout this novel, it’s unmistakable but this is also distinctly Norwegian crime fiction. Staalesen is a fan of Ross MacDonald, a literary writer who transcends genre, but his love of gritty social critique came from Sjowall and Wahloo, the legendary Swedish writing duo. Veum is a gumshoe cut from the same cloth as Marlowe and Spade. It was brave, maybe even foolhardy, in the 1970s when Staalesen invented the Norwegian PI, assuming that the values that worked in California could be transferred to the fjords – it worked. Of course, Veum is very Norwegian in his drinking habits, his political leanings, the fact that he is unarmed, and in his relationship to landscape and nature. He sticks his nose in, uses his intuition and has a dogged determination. The decision to make him a social worker, rather than a cop, was inspired, it gives him distance but he still has an insider perspective. The novels are set nearly two decades ago but Veum has embraced technology yet is still a bit perplexed by it. Cleverly plotted and elegantly structured, this novel rates along side Staalesen’s best.
Early January, Veum has just completed a job, as he walks back to his car at the Lagunen shopping centre, just outside Bergen, a car is driven straight at him, accident or design?:
‘. . . had he intentionally tried to run me down?’
Veum jumps aside as the VW Golf speeds away. It can’t be related to the case he just closed but then a strange coincidence plays on his mind. A couple of paedophiles Veum got caught up with sixteen months ago recently died; Mikael Midtbø in October and Per Haugen in December. It was the worst moment of Veum’s life when he was accused of having child pornography on his computer. He escaped police custody to conduct his own investigation. Tracking down the four men who set him up, three were caught but one has never been accounted for, presumed drowned. Veum was eventually exonerated but his relationship with the police soured. Mikael Midtbø fell from the tenth story of a block of flats, there were no witnesses, it was assumed suicide. Per Haugen drowned after a heart attack and that was assumed to be natural causes. What if it wasn’t…
Another man arrested at the same time as Veum, Karl Slåtthaug, is missing. The police are dismissive of Veum’s claim that someone tried to kill him. So he opens his own investigation. Starting with the families of the dead men. The novel builds slowly as interviews reveal very little, except that quiet sense of unease that comes from knowing secrets are being kept. Mikael Midtbø’s wife says his ex was responsible for the paedophile rumours, nothing to it, but the case against Haugen was more straight forward, his daughter was abused and he served time for it. Veum begins to look for Karl Slåtthaug but things get very personal for Veum and his girlfriend, Solvi, as he uncovers abuse, an old adversary is looking for revenge.
I savoured the novel’s smooth, easy style. The drip feeding of information that builds towards revelations. Veum’s attitude to authority and his quick wit make for a little light relief, it’s both subtle and punchy. Veum’s desire to solve the case and to understand the past becomes very personal and emotionally intense. As is appropriate to his age Veum has mellowed, he’s more personable, but he’s lost none his edge.
The Varg Veum novels make up one of the most consistently strong crime series out there and Staalesen is one of the writers who gave Scandi-Noir (Nordic-Noir) a good name. Not all his novels have been translated into English but the following are available: The Writing on the Wall, Yours until Death, The Consorts of Death, Wolves in the Dark, Cold Hearts and The Big Sister. Clearly translator Don Bartlett has an excellent understanding of Staalesen’s writing.
Haunting, dark and totally noir, a great read.
Paul Burke 4/4
Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen
Orenda Books 9781912374410 pbk Jun 2019