It was only last year, when I read my first Gunnar Staalesen’s crime fiction novel, We Shall Inherit The Wind that I realized that Nordic Noir hadn’t been created in the ‘90s by Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankel and Steig Larsson. With 20 novels in his Varg Veum crime-detective series published since 1977, Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the pioneers of this gritty, socially-conscious, self-aware style of crime thriller is truly deserved. In this months book Where Roses Never Die – the latest of Veum series to be translated into English and published in June by Orenda Books http://www.orendabooks.co.uk –Staalesen does not disappoint. His time-honed mastery of plot, characterization, story-telling and atmospheric scene-setting is evident throughout.
At the outset of the story, Veum is in a sorry state. Still mourning the three-year-old death of his girlfriend, Karin, his days revolve around the next glass of aquavit. Socially isolated and with little work, he’s hanging on to a semblance of normality by his fingernails. His lifeline appears in the form of Maja Misvaer, the mother of a 3-year old girl, Mette, who had disappeared without trace almost 25-years earlier. The case had never been solved and within 6 months will be time-barred. So a desperate Maja, who, understandably, has never come to terms with the unexplained disappearance of little Mette, comes to an equally desperate Veum in a last-ditch attempt to find something – anything – that could prompt a reinvestigation of the case.
And she has, of course, come to the right place. In classic fictional gumshoe mode, Veum is that dogged workaholic who leaves no stone unturned, no nuance unprodded and no secret unearthed in his terrier-like approach to solving the case. Inevitably he unearths more secrets than those involved are comfortable with – Maja herself included.
With Staalensen’s consummate mastery of storytelling, a multi-faceted plot unfolds, drawing together a series of seemingly unrelated elements: Mette’s disappearance, a recent jewelry heist, the relationships between neighbours in the tightly-knit community where Maja lives – and from where Mette had disappeared. For my liking, some of the links between elements were a bit thin and tenuous and the eventual denouement stretched my credibility to straining point (to my mind there were too many people involved for the final secret to be maintained for 25 years).
But even with these reservations, the book was compelling reading. And this, of course, is where Scandinavian crime writing trumps over it’s standard UK and US counterparts. Because it isn’t just (or even primarily) a case of finding out ‘whodunit’. It’s not simply a ‘Where’s Wally’ exercise in recognising the clues and putting them together with a ‘Hey, presto – he’s the murderer’ outcome. The Scandinavian approach also focuses on the aftershocks. The sundering judders, shudders, waves and even ripples that spread out into the lives of people affected by the trauma of the central event.
It’s at this that Staalesen really excels. With exquisite subtlety, via descriptions of a character’s appearance, clothes, facial expressions, involuntary responses – even the pictures on the walls and arrangement of furniture in their homes – he paints a detailed picture of their “back story”. A story that the reader cannot fail to be moved by. I defy anyone to read Staalesen’s description of Maja on that first visit to Veum without feeling empathy for a woman struggling to keep going – even before we hear her story. Or not to be moved to sadness at the corrosive effect the keeping of a shameful secret has on the young Joachim Bridgeland.
The story ends on a hopeful note – for Maja, Joachim and for Veum. He’s solved the crime and has a new romantic interest in his life. But aquavit beckons … will he succumb? We have to wait for the translation of the next in the series, No One Is As Safe In Danger, already published in Norwegian.
The story was inspired by the actual disappearance of two young girls in Norway in the ‘70s. Unfortunately these real-life events have not ended on a hopeful note. What happened to the young girls is still unknown. Staalesen choose the title of the book from the gospel-style hymn “Where Roses Never Fade”, the Norwegian version of which is called “Where Roses Never Die”. Commenting on the title in a recent interview he said “for the people left behind there is comfort to be found in the belief that close relatives who are dead have simply traveled to another and much happier world: a place where the roses neither fade or die.” We can only hope that the families of these two girls – and the families of all children who have disappeared – can find some solace, somewhere, to help deal with such a catastrophic tragedy.
If you’ve thought ‘The Door’ has seemed shut for the past month, it has and there’s a good excuse, I got married. It’s been hard to find time to write and upload reviews for the latter
part of May and most of June, what with assisting my fiancee – now wife to juggle numerous details of the nuptials, while enjoying the ceremony and various events and parties in both Lincoln and Dublin. Now that it’s done and dusted normal service will resume.