Book review: Where Roses Never Die, by Gunnar Staalesen

22 05 2017

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian writer best known for his longrunning ‘Varg Veum’ crime fiction series, documenting the cases of a lugubrious, deadpan, good-hearted, aquavit-sculling PI based in Staalesen’s hometown of Bergen. There are almost twenty books in the Veum series, of which less than half have yet appeared in English translation.

WhereRosesNeverDie

Where Roses Never Die (Der hvor roser aldri dør, 2012, translated by Don Bartlett) is set in March 2012, but revolves around the events of almost twenty-five years earlier. Veum is contracted by a desperate parent, Maja Misvær, whose three-year-old daughter Mette disappeared from her home’s sandpit one morning in September 1977, with no signs of a struggle and no subsequent trace of her fate. A substantial police investigation at the time found no indication of foul play; now the mother wants her daughter’s haunting disappearance reviewed once more before the 25-year statute of limitations falls on the case. The Misværs occupied—indeed, the divorced Maja still occupies—one of five homes in ‘Solstølvegen’, an architect-designed U-shaped terrace. Once he’s sobered up sufficiently, Veum commences his investigation by interviewing those of the five homes’ original occupants who are still at the address, which, as it turns out, is about half of them, due to a combination of relocation and divorce. He tracks further afield to speak to the others, though one is irrevocably beyond reach (gunned down a few months earlier as an innocent bystander in a mishandled jewellery getaway). Is it really going to be possible for a lone alcohol-damaged PI to solve a case that remained beyond the full reach of the police’s resources twenty-five years earlier?

Staalesen’s writing doesn’t follow the usual style of Scandinavian crime fiction: the language here is playful, mordant, sometimes whimsical. Nesbø has compared Staalesen’s style to Chandler, and there’s a definite Philip Marlowe flavour to Veum, with the hard drinking, the persistence, the insistence on asking inappropriate questions, and the sharp backchat. There are some absolutely wonderful lines in the dialogue and in the descriptions. The plotting, too, is extraordinary. Overall, the book is astonishingly vivid and enticing, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I learned once I finished reading the book that Where Roses Never Die has just (ie within the last 48 hours) won the 2017 Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction in translation. I can’t speak for all six books on the shortlist, but the two others I’ve read and reviewed—Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Exiled and Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal—would have to be considered formidable adversaries, every bit as good in their way as Staalesen’s work.

(A side note on Roses: I found myself rather bemused by the prevalence of alliterative characters in the book, which approaches Marvel-comic-series tendencies: Varg Veum of course, Maja & Mette Misvær, Terje Torbeinsvik, Synnøve & Svein Stangeland, Jesper Janevik … I’m not sure if this is indicative of a genuine Norwegian nominative proclivity, but it was noticeable enough to seem a little odd.)

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