Did you know that in the 2013 peace index – a measure of peacefulness among 162 nations according to 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators – Norway was ranked 11th, since then it’s slipped six places to seventeenth in the 2015 index. This is probably not surprising considering the rise in popularity of it’s crime fiction. Thus bringing us on to the second book of this month, it’s ‘We shall Inherit The Wind’ – by Gunnar Staalesen, published in June by Orenda books (www.orendabooks.co.uk).
Ten pages into this book I was thinking “this guy is copying Steig Larsson”. The atmosphere, characters and settings were all reminiscent of Larsson’s “Girl with a Dragon Tatoo” Millenium trilogy. A quick Google search revealed that I was very wrong. If anything, it’s the other way ‘round. Steig Larsson was copying Gunnar Staalesen.
My mistake was one that no Norwegian would make. Hailed as one of the fathers of Nordic Noir, Gunnar Staalesen has been
writing successful detective thrillers since 1977 and is Norway’s answer to Raymond Chandler. His series of novels featuring the private investigator Varg Veum have sold millions of copies and spawned twelve film adaptations. However, only six of these novels have been translated into English – which probably explains why he is relatively unknown in this part of the world. If the calibre of ‘We Shall Inherit the Wind’ is anything to go by, that’s definitely our loss.
When we first meet Varg Veum he’s 65 and at the hospital bedside of his long-term girl friend, Karin (yes, girl friend – like Philip Marlowe, Veum has a problem with commitment!). She’s seriously ill and it’s all his fault. Flipping back in time, the story of how he has gotten into this predicament unfolds.
Although Veum has a rule against taking on marital investigations, as a favour to Karin he agrees to investigate the disappearance of her friend’s husband, Mons Maeland. Karin’s friend, Ranveig, is Maeland’s second wife, his first wife having disappeared, assumed drowned, over 15 years previously. Prior to his own disappearance, Maeland was evaluating a plan to erect wind turbines on an island in the rugged, scenic landscape of Gulen in the western fjords. Needless to say, this plan is vociferously opposed by local environmentalists, including Maeland’s own daughter, and supported by local businesses and politicians. Against this backdrop of feuding families and communities, Veum unearths more secrets than anyone involved wants.
While not as compelling or as gritty as ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo’, this is an absorbing story with sufficient suspense and twists to engage and maintain the reader’s interest. The characterisation of Veum himself is a big part of the story’s appeal. A non-conformist outsider, he says-it-like-he-sees-it, often inappropriately and to his own – and others – detriment. But he’s no Philip Marlowe. There’s little black-and-white moralizing here. The complexities and nuances of situations and characters are explored and readers are often left to decide for themselves who, if any, are the good guys and bad guys.
But the real mother lode of this book is not the plot, Veum’s characterisation or the nuanced approach to social and personal issues. What brings it out of the realm of yet another professionally executed detective story are the descriptions of the west Norway landscape and its communities. I’ve a fairly long list of places to visit on my bucket list and, up until now, Norway wasn’t on it. But Staalesen’s word pictures of the rugged, wild, bleak beauty of the Gulen area has made me re-think. I would have loved if a map had been included in the book so that I could follow Veum’s journeys among the fjords and islands.
Equally beguiling are the portrayals of the ancillary characters living in this area. They inhabit west Norway in this book, but I’ve met them in the west of Ireland. You thought that answering a question with a question was a unique characteristic of people from Kerry? If so, there’s a brilliant description of a Kerry woman living on an island in Gulen. Or maybe you thought that finding out that the person you sat beside on the bus to Connemara is related to your first cousin was a uniquely Irish experience? Well, they’ve imported this phenomenon to west Norway too. I definitely need to go there – it’ll be just like home!
I have one quibble with Staalesen’s portrayal of Veum, though. In one scenario, Veum is sexually propositioned by an attractive, high-flying businesswoman who’s half his age. This smacks of tired old-fashioned male fantasy to me. Or is it a key difference between life in Norway and Ireland? One thing for sure, if it happened in Ireland it’s unlikely that the opportunity would be turned down!
This minor quibble apart, I’ll be looking out for the next two installments Where Roses Never Die and No One Is So Safe in Danger promised for 2016 and 2017 from Orenda Books . Will we found out what 190344 means?
Hat’s off to the translator, Don Bartlett. There wasn’t a moment where I was conscious of this being a translation from the original Norweigan. It read as if it was written in English.