I’m going to come right out and say this at the start; Gunnar Staalesen is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers and this is based purely on only the two Varg Veum books of his I’ve read – We Shall Inherit The Wind and, now, Where Roses Never Die.
With that in mind it was an absolute, relished delight to sit down at the start of May while away on holiday, overlooking a lake and armed with a fresh cup of coffee and no distractions (napping toddler), delve into Where Roses Never Die and another lesson in Nordic-Noir from the master.
In September 1977 a three-year-old girl, Mette Misvær is playing in the sandpit outside her home. When her mother, having been distracted, looks out the window to check on her daughter, Mette has disappeared. The tiny community – a model suburb – of Nordas is devastated. The police search everywhere but their enquiries produce nothing. Mette is never found.
Fast-forward almost 25 years and, as the statute of limitations approach, Mette’s mother approaches PI Varg Veum. She’s never been able to believe that her daughter is gone, the loss has haunted her and she’s desperate for answers. Veum is in no real shape to take a case, he’s still reeling from the aftermath of We Shall Inherit The Wind. But he takes the case – if only to rebuild his depleted bank balance – and begins to unravel a web of secrets and lies that lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little community.
As a parent the subject matter is a bit of an emotional punch as it plays directly into your worst fears (not the only book in Orenda’s stable to do so, I might add) but, having been writing Varg Veum novels since 1977, Staalesen knows how to navigate these waters and not let the reader drown and the energy and pull of Varg keeps it moving. It’s a haunting story and Staalesen plots it brilliantly, expertly bringing together seemingly unrelated events and characters into a revelation that’s an absolute shocker. That final revelation is a pretty dark one to say the least so I’m going to avoid going into plot for risk of giving anything away but, in the same way as the previous novel, the reveal here left me reeling. I can’t think of a more satisfying thing to get from a book than to be so genuinely floored by it.
Where Roses Never Die is superbly paced and with a story so intricately weaved together and with so many dark secrets pulled into the light you find yourself wondering what’s going on behind every drawn curtain. Characters are pulled from all shades of society and the moral spectrum and all believable – there are some for whose fate the reader can’t help but become invested in.
But these novels are more than gripping mysteries waiting to be unravelled, they’re glimpses into the life of one of Nordic-Noir’s greatest character’s; Varg Veum. If the ending of We Shall Inherit The Wind left the reader feeling battered then it sure as hell knocked Varg for six – he’s spent the years between “on the longest and darkest marathon” of his life . Veum is an immensely human and likeable character – he’s not always popular and very few are happy to see him twice but he’s driven by a sense of justice and finding out the truth, regardless of who’s feathers are ruffled. He, too, is, flawed – marked by a past and haunted his own mistakes. But even here, Staalesen’s mastery means that while there have been detectives nursing a battle with alcohol before it’s rarely so wonderfully evoked as within these pages:
Then I lifted the aquavit glass and drank deeply. For a second or two I had to close my eyes. I was sailing into a harbour I had left much too long ago, and on the quay stood people I hadn’t seen for years, who received me with cheering so quite that I could hear my pulse throbbing in my ears.
Staalesen’s prose is a master-class in efficiency, with minimal strokes he paints a complex plot that draws you into Veum’s world. Varg isn’t an all-action thriller detective, there’s no Reacher-style arms-behind-back fights here. No, Veum piece-by-piece pulls apart the web of lies, misdirection and secrets in his quest to discover what happened to Mette and as he slowly and methodically stalks the truth, so too does Staalesen’s prose until you’re immersed in a wonderful, enveloping narrative that holds you firmly in its grip until the final revelation – and long beyond finishing the last page too. More than just a personal favourite, Gunnar Staalesen is the absolute master of this genre and reading his work is a delight.
Translation is a tricky beast. It can make or break a book and Staalesen’s words are in very safe hands with Don Bartlett. With translations for Nesbo and Knausgaard to his name, Bartlett remains the translator of choice for Norwegian masters and his deft hand here ensures that Staalesen’s narrative and tone flows naturally.
There’s no question that if I were to put stars here there’d be five of them for Where Roses Never Die and, while we’re only just at the halfway mark for the year, it’s easily one of – if not the – best books of 2016.
I’m itching for more Varg Veum and will now (tbr pile allowing) make my way back through those available in English. Do get a hold of Where Roses Never Die – a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for mine – and check out the other stops on the blog tour.