Blog Tour: Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR:“One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault … crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing.

While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play … and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large.

Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark … they are at his door. And they want vengeance.”

How do I begin to review the latest novel from one of my favourite authors? It’s not easy – I’ve been staring at the screen wondering how to kick this off for a while now. It’s tricky to find a way to sum up just how bloody good a writer Gunnar Staalesen is while at the same time pointing out that Wolves At The Door finds him still at the top of his game. I can’t pour further superlatives on Staalesen than I already have, and I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this one – it needs to be read and savoured.

I’ve often compared reading Staalesen to enjoying a good coffee. You don’t throw it back like an espresso and get all hopped-up like an airport-thriller. You savour it, enjoy it and let it ease into your system in an enveloping warmth before you realise you’re hooked and something has got your heart moving a little faster.

I suppose that’s a pretty good way to get going, right? It’s true: Gunnar Staalesen is among the top-tier of writers and the latest Varg Veum novel continues a hot streak that’s about forty years long now.

One of the many joys of reading Staalesen’s work is the precision and warmth of his prose. While there’s not an excess word there’s never a sense of rush; the plot unfolds with expert precision and timing rather than bounding along at a thrill-a-minute pace, even when Varg is both hunter and prey. There’s something deeply satisfying and rewarding in the way the plot of Staalesen’s novels, Wolves At The Door included, comes together, piece by piece as Veum slowly pulls at threads and finds links between the past and present and makes his discoveries by putting in the hard work rather than kicking in doors and heads – not to mention the fact that Veum is, almost despite himself, an endearing character.

Speaking of threads – Wolves At The Door picks up the thread from Wolves In The Dark – with a few vital character developments from Big Sister touched upon too – and it’s a heavy subject matter: the horrendous offences Varg was accused of in that novel and several others were guilty of don’t make for light reading. Yet Staalesen handles the subject matter with care and without exploitation. There are too many third-rate writers out there that would use child abuse and pornography for shock value and handle it like turd in a pool. Staalesen is a writer who knows how to find the heart in a story rather than the shock and that’s infinitely more affective.

I’m now seven novels in to my discovery of the Varg Veuem series. Prior to Wolves At The Door I’d not long finished Yours Until Death, Staalesen’s second from 1979. There’s a steadfastness about Veum that runs through the entire series – he’s an honest, yet flawed character driven by all the right motivations no matter the cost. Yet, forty-plus years in, Staalesen is still able to make his detective a compelling character with enough mystery and development (there’s a big one right at the end of Wolves at the Door) to keep readers wanting more, all the while delivering original and heavy-hitting stories – I don’t think there’s many writers that make that claim, regardless of genre.

If there’s a standard for Nordic Noir then it’s Staalesen who sets it and he sets it bloody high.

My thanks, as always, to Karen at Orenda for both introducing me to Staalesen’s work and keeping my addiction fed, and to Anne Cater for invtiting me to take part in this blogtour.

Blog Tour: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark actions are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Big Sister reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

When it comes to reading there is no greater pleasure than getting stuck into a new Gunnar Staalesen book.

The problem, mind, is how to review a book like Big Sister without a) simply repeating ‘amazing’ emphatically and b) giving anything away. So I’ll talk, in general terms, about just how much I loved this book.

There is something just so fantastically absorbing about Staalesen’s work that I’m always longing to read more. To me it’s like enjoying a good mug full of coffee, you have to take your time with it and savour every moment before you get the kick. It’s not a fast-paced thriller; Staalesen’s prose is a much calmer affair that lures you in and immerses you in its mystery. A real slow-build but with not a single spare word – it’s the writing of a master at play, really. Richly detailed yet concise, tightly-plotted fiction that effortlessly packs more punch and weight than novels three times its page count.

One of the things I really enjoy about Staalesen’s narrative style is the way in which he – and Veum – casts a wide net out at the start of the story and slowly hauls it in, revealing little ideas and avenues of intrigue, some which lead nowhere but others which lead off into some fascinating places before Veum discovers the particular line of investigation which brings them together and solves the case. As Veum himself says: “when I stumble over some peripheral information during a case, an investigation I’m doing, my experience is that it might well end up having some significance.”

Big Sister is no exception to this – some of the leads he follows reveal some really dark stuff this time round, mind (though anyone familiar with the last three novels would argue that that’s nothing new), but it all slowly and deliberately creates a huge web of connections between the lives of the characters that manages to show just how far-reaching and devastating events that were thought long-since buried can become. It means that when the truth is realised it hits you like a tonne of bricks.

Reading a new Staalesen novel is like catching up with an old friend, getting a glimpse into Varg’s life for a few weeks at a time to see how life is treating Bergen’s almost-only PI. Veum is a refreshingly human character in the genre, flawed (though I don’t think he touched a drop of aquavit in this one) and – particularly as his age advances – vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for him. It’s great that Big Sister really managed – as the 18th novel in the series – to reveal something new about such an established character and his past and I thoroughly look forward to seeing if that particular thread is picked up on in the next book.

It’s impossible to do a novel like Big Sister justice in a review. I fucking loved it but, then, I’ve loved every novel I’ve read thus far by Staalesen and I really need to get my hands on those novels pre We Shall Inherit The Wind that have been translated into English too. Every time I think I’ve read the best book I will in a year, Orenda drops a new Gunnar Staalesen that jumps straight to the top of the list. As such, my thanks to Karen at Orenda both for my copy and continuing to publish such wonderful fiction and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this blogtour. Always a pleasure, never a chore 😀

 

 

 

Blog Tour: Wolves In The Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “Reeling from the death of his great love, Karin, Varg Veum’s life has descended into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol, lust, grief and blackouts. When traces of child pornography are found on his computer, he’s accused of being part of a paedophile ring and thrown into a prison cell. There, he struggles to sift through his past to work out who is responsible for planting the material … and who is seeking the ultimate revenge.

When a chance to escape presents itself, Varg finds himself on the run in his hometown of Bergen. With the clock ticking and the police on his tail, Varg takes on his hardest – and most personal – case yet. Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Wolves in the Dark reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

Right now I don’t think there is a writer whose new novels I look forward to as much as Gunnar Staalesen. And I’ll probably say this every year with every new novel; Wolves In The Dark is the best Varg yet! It’s just so fucking good I never wanted it to end.

I cannot recommend the Varg Veum series enough, Staalesen is the sitting King of Nordic Noir and this, the 21st (!) in the series puts Bergen’s finest into his most challenging and dangerous case to date.

Woken up by the police knocking on his door, Veum is shocked to find himself arrested and lead out to a waiting police car for the worst crime imaginable; possessing, sharing and even creating child pornography “of the must repugnant kind.” Having spent a number of the almost-four years previous lost in grief and his alcoholic coping method following the events of We Shall Inherit The Wind, Varg begins slowly pulling together threads of memory and seemingly random cases he’d worked on in the ‘fog’ of those years to try and work out just who might have sufficient a grudge (and ability) to put him in the frame – turns out it’s a pretty long list. When a chance presents itself Veum escapes from the police and sets about investigating for himself.

I read a news story not so long ago about a man whose life was completely ruined after a mistake (an error in one police force’s writing down an IP address) led to him being arrested under child pornography charges and placed on the sex offender’s list. A devastating account of a life turned upside down – his job was lost, he was traumatised, his relationships and family suffered – all because of an error. Turns out there’s a few of these. It seemed stranger than fiction and fascinating – where would you even begin, how could you hope to fight such a case?

I’d like to believe I’d be incensed and able to fight enough to clear my name. But then what about the impact on your life, on your person? To know that so many people – including, in some cases, those near and dear believe you capable of such horrors? Will people ever look at you the same? And these are innocent people. Rendered criminal and untrustworthy, monstrous even, by a mistake.

In Varg’s case it’s not a mistake – the material is on his computer but who put it there? Who has deliberately thrown him to the wolves to be shredded in public? The more he investigates the more he uncovers, the more he shakes the tree the more potential enemies fall out each baring him ill and each with the ability to implicated him via his computer.

The chase, as Varg tears through Bergen as both hunter and prey (to his increasing list of enemies as well as the police) is the most thrilling and gripping in pace as I’ve read from Staalesen; Veum is very much against the clock and working within strict confines of both geography and tool set as he has to evade detection. In previous Staaleson novels I’ve loved the almost leisurely, calm and confident manner in which Veum slowly and methodically pieces together his cases – like a Zen master who knows his craft. Here, though, as much as he knows his craft the shattered state of his memory almost leaves him clutching at straws with thoughts and fragments coming back out of the ether and it’s an absolute joy to read as Veum is forced to work as frantically as possible against the odds.

But what about the human element? The effect of being accused of such horrendous and unspeakable crimes? Well, I’ve said this before and I’ll save it again: Staalesen is the master. He paints an intelligent, detailed and thoroughly convincing portrait of a man on the edge, plagued and sickened (physically) by both the accusation and the crimes themselves (let’s not forget Varg was a Social Services man before a PI) and torn at the prospect people believe him capable of such inhuman crimes.

The underworld of Norway never fails to prove a complex and riveting backdrop in Nordic Noir and Staalesen spins a delightfully well plotted story that delivers a hugely satisfying read as all the strands come together toward a denouement that left this reader gobsmacked.

Again: I cannot recommend Staalesen enough and even though it’s only June, Wolves In The Dark may well be the best book I read this year.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy, do check out the other stops on the blogtour and get your hands on a copy of Wolves In The Dark.

 

We Shall Inherit The Wind

Having gotten a taste for Nordic Noir I’ve now been given the opportunity to read the man hailed as one of the fathers of the genre – Gunnar Staalesen.

First published in 2010 in Norway, We Shall Inherit The Wind is the 18th novel in the Varg Veum series and now published in English by Orenda Books (if ever there’s a publisher to follow devotedly it’s Orenda Books) with translation by Don Bartlett.

We Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.inddSet in 1998, Staalesen’s private investigator Varg Veum sits at the hospital bedside of his long-term girlfriend Karin as she battles life-threatening injuries bought about by the events surrounding Varg’s latest investigation.

From here Staalesen takes us back – by “barely a week” – to re-trace those events (when I re-read that line for this review I had to read it twice as so much is packed into just a few days). Given how we know where they lead, the edge of the seat is pretty much all you’ll occupy from here on in.

This ominous start leads us into a missing-persons case, with Veum pretty certain that the missing man – Mons Mæland – is already dead. Veum’s initial digging into Mæland’s affairs opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions with no clear answers. Every clue seems to point toward a more complex mystery which becomes all the more thrilling when Mæland is found dead – in a most dramatic fashion – and the plot thickens.

Location is key. While Veum operates out of Staalesen’s own Bergen, most of the action takes place on the fictitious Brennøy and nearby islands. We’re a little outside of the comfort-zone here, you got the sense that you’re out in the wilds on each occasion that Veum leaves Bergen behind, with civilisation just a little too far over the horizon – indeed, law and order needs to arrive via helicopter.

From experience I know how stunning Norway can be but this isn’t a summer holiday; this is autumn and Staalesen uses the isolation afforded by the setting to up the chill-factor. From the off, almost, the remote locations hang heavy with foreboding:

…the trees stood like dark monuments to a time when not only the mountains had to be clad but every tiny scrap of island skirted by the fjord. Accordingly spruces lined long stretches of the Vestland cost. No one had thinned the striplings, and no one had cut down the trees except the cabin owners who had desperately tried to clear themselves a place in the sun. It looked as if they had given up here ages ago.

So much to love in that paragraph alone… “dark monuments”…. “desperately tried”…  “given up here ages ago”… you almost have the “abandon all hope” sign nailed to the start of the chapter.

Far from being a run-of-the-mill who-dunnit, We Shall Inherit The Wind is an intense read, pulling in eco-terrorism, religious fanaticism, corruption both at corporate and local-government level, plot twist after plot twist and a cast of characters with plenty of secrets and hidden connections. Two, three, four times I thought I’d sussed out who was behind Mæland’s murder only to be left utterly open-mouthed by the final reveal with Veum keeping his cards close to his chest right until the bitter end. I’ll admit I also felt like I’d been emotionally sucker-punched come the end, having been so caught up in the mystery as to be left open for the impact of the human consequences.

Varg means “wolf” in Norwegian and the novel approaches the plot just as a wolf its prey; elements come together piece-by-piece, as the wolf slowly and assuredly stalks it prey Varg is a wise hunter, patiently letting events unfold with delicate pacing. Rather than rushing in and barrelling along at a frantic pace there’s long drives and ferry rides (the novel is set in the fjords of Norway, not down-town LA afterall), a stealthy gathering of every shred of evidence (and a lot of people’s cages rattled) before going in for the violent and bloody climax.

Gunnar Staalesen is clearly a master-at-work by now, having first introduced the world to Varg Veum back in 1977. The prose is richly detailed, the plot enthused with social and environmental commentary while while never diminishing in interest or pace, the dialogue natural and convincing and the supporting characters all bristle with life.

A multi-layered, engrossing and skilfully written novel, there’s not an excess word in We Shall Inherit The Wind. It’s a slow-building exercise in suspense that’s 100% addictive, one that gets you in the wolf’s jaws with the first few lines, sinks its teeth in and won’t let go until long after the finale.

After my first dip into the world of Varg Veum I’m left wanting more. With We Shall Inherit The Wind I’ve been afforded a snap-shot into the life of a very complex but nonetheless endearing and relatable character and anxiously await the next two instalments from my favourite publisher. Though I may search out the earlier two novels to have made it into English.

I’m one of the last stops on the blog tour for this novel so do check out those that have come before me including yesterday’s great interview with Staalesn at Nordic Noir and get your hands / kindle / e-reader / whatever on a copy of this hugely rewarding read via Orenda.

We Shall Inherit the Wind Blog Tour