Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two by Gunnar Staalesen

Amon the originators of nordic noir, Gunnar Staalesen has not fared as well as some others in being translated into English. His ground-breaking Varg Veum series includes 19 novels, published at regular intervals since the '70s in his native Norwegian, but only 9 have been translated for English-speaking readers, sometimes with gaps of 8 or 9 years between translations.

Varg Veum is distinctive in a number of ways, perhaps not least because he is, to my knowledge, the only fictional private detective whose background is social work. And the novels frequently involve threatened children (as do, directly or indirectly, the two most recently translated). Plus Veum is ageing, closely tracking real time. By the second of the two new books he's 61, and showing the physical strains and limitations of his age (including slower recovery from the beatings that private detectives in noir fiction seem prone to get).

In Wolves in the Dark, Veum has been struggling with the sudden death of his lover. He has mostly been a more or less upright citizen, though living at the margins of Norwegian culture in his home town of Bergen, but in Wolves, he. has plummeted down and out . He had indulged in acquavit to the extent of experiencing numerous total blackouts, and his detective work has suffered. Now, in the frame of the novel, he has begun his recovery, largely through the help of a new relationship, but he stands accused of a terrible crime and must revisit some cases he had taken on in his drunken days to look for who might have framed him. These cases, and his own flight from the police back and forth across Bergen, are a civic and cultural portrait as well as a very complex story (whose various threads are finally more or less drawn together by the end). His flight from the police adds a breathless quality to the narrative which is not typical for this series (though there are always passages of danger and threat in the books).

Big Sister is a quite different story. Now that he is back on his feet, Veum is surprised by his new client, a long-lost half-sister, whose existence he was aware of but whom he has never met. She wants him to find her missing god-daughter, a college-age woman who has vanished. Veum dives deeply into several cases of sexual and physical abuse as well as drugs, plus unexpected strands of his own family history, as the book moves slowly toward a final surprise that seems a bit cinematic. Along the way, he has to contend with a biker gang (bikers are a particular staple of Scandinavian crime fiction) and a host of reluctant witnesses.

Veum's voice as narrator of his own stories is unfailingly self-aware, and grounded in both ethical standards and genuine concern for children and young people. His unique voice is one of Staalesen's major conributions to Scandinavian noir.

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