Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two important Norwegians

The principle characters of two of the most prominent Norwegian crime writers, Anne Holt (author of the Hanne Wilhemsen series, set in Oslo) and Gunnar Staalesen (author of the Varg Veum series, set in Bergen) in a recently translated novel by Holt, The Lion's Mouth, when Wilhemsen runs into her old friend Varg in a cafe. It's only a passing moment, a kind of homage from one writer to another, as we can see in The Lion's Mouth and in Staalesen's recently translated We Shall Inherit the Wind.

Holt's novel is immersed in Norwegian political machinations and scandals when the prime minister, scarcely 6 months after she had taken office, is found dead in her office. The investigation, not by the senior cop Hanne, because she is in America on a sabbatical until almost halfway through the novel, but by her friend Billy T and, of course, everyone else in the Norwegian police and security services. There is also a three-decades-old scandal, uncovered recently and under investigation by a commission headed by an old friend of the prime minister, dealing with an unusual number of babies who died in the year 1965.

At times, this is a political thriller something like that other giant of Norwegian crime writing, Jo Nesbø, or perhaps the Swedish writer Leif GW Persson, but the tone of Holt's writing is quite different. She alternates gritty and hard-nosed investigation with some light-hearted, even childish, behavior on the part of Billy T and others, injecting a bit of the atmosphere of a cozy mystery into this otherwise more noir and urban tale.

Staalesen's hero Varg is a private detective whose career started as a social worker, and he often investigates the disappearance of children (as in the case he mentions when he runs into Hanne), but in We Shall Inherit the Wind he is asked to find an adult male who has disappeared just before finalizing a deal to build a wind farm on a prominent site above a fjord. We learn a lot about the politics of clean energy (rather than Norwegian national politics) as well as the machinations of families involved in one way or another with the site of the proposed wind facility.

The book begins with Varg's girlfriend, near death in a hospital, and circles back to the story in which she is led to that hospital bed. The tone is very dark, due in part to that framing device, but there is also a lot of violence, threats of violence and even a crucifixion, lending an apocalyptic air in line wih the Biblical title of the book. But Varg, who is also the narrator in this series, is an affecting example of the tragic hero outlined by Raymond Chandler's famous essay on hard-boiled fiction, while also being humane and vulnerable (very much in character with his original profession). 

It's appropriate and amusing for Hanne and Varg to meet, in Holt's bit of metafiction, but they otherwise don't have a lot in common: Varg is immersed in the dark side of urban life, with rarely a moment of respite, while Hanne diverts her (and the reader's) attention with more settled relationships in her own life and in the lives of those around her. Between the two writers, they describe the whole range of the rich vein of Scandinavian noir that is unique to Norway.

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