Book review: Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen

11 01 2018

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian crime novelist best known for his long-running series of ‘Varg Veum’ novels, featuring a sporadically heavy-drinking Bergen-based private investigator. The first Veum novel was published in 1979 and Staalesen has now written around twenty titles in the series, though only a minority have yet been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed one of them, Where Roses Never Die, here.

WOLVES IN THE DARK AW 3.indd

Wolves in the Dark (Ingen er så trygg i fare, 2014, translated by Don Bartlett) opens with Veum’s arrest on charges of possession of child pornography. Veum knows himself to be innocent, but the evidence on his computer professes otherwise. And when compromising photographs emerge in which Veum himself features, the police’s conviction that they’ve arrested a significant participant in an international online child porn ring only becomes more substantial. Nonetheless, the PI’s defence lawyer maintains that they should be able to determine whether the offending material has been placed on Veum’s computer by another user, given sufficient time. It’s probably not the smartest move, therefore, for Veum to do a runner when the opportunity suddenly presents itself, but he’s determined to demonstrate his innocence by following the more hands-on approach he’s accustomed to in his investigations. The trouble is that (aside from the slight problem that the police are now scouring the city for him) he presumes that he must have done something over the past few years to have made enemies determined enough to have framed him for one of the most unspeakable categories of crime … and he’s spent an inconvenient proportion of those past few years in an alcoholic haze and has therefore forgotten more than he can remember.

Veum is, at times, a highly frustrating protagonist, but he’s nonetheless a strongly sympathetic character overall: deeply flawed, not always functional, but fiercely determined and unafraid to take risks which, often, he gets away with. The book is dense with complication—it’s a fairly elaborate setup—but there’s enough space, within the interstices of an intricate and quite heavily-populated plot, for sufficient detail in setting and depth of characterisation to satisfy the reader. I did find myself wondering whether the book’s busyness and pace was well-suited to the gravity of the subject matter: I think a slower, more reflective tale might have provided more scope to properly explore what is, after all, a highly fraught (and sadly perenially topical) issue. But that wouldn’t, I think, be Staalesen’s style. Here, he concerns himself with first unravelling and then tying up a myriad of loose ends in a stylish story heavy on intrigue and menace. It’s not, perhaps, the equal of its highly impressive immediate predecessor, Where Roses Never Die, but it’s a rewarding enough addition to the series.

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