Gunnar Staalesen, king of Norwegian Noir
Brought to you by Jerry Holt
July 11, 1983, has a dark significance for me. That is the day that my then-favorite crime writer, Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), died of Alzheimer’s disease. Through 35 years and 18 novels, Macdonald’s laconic private eye Lew Archer had been showing me the depth and power of detective fiction like no one other than Raymond Chandler ever had. In 1983, heartbreakingly, all that ended.
A pretty long dry spell ensued for me. And then, even as the century turned, I encountered my first Gunnar Staalesen novel, The Writing on the Wall, and I knew that dry spell was over. All the qualities I had found so important in Macdonald were more than evident in Staalesen’s work—but with a very important difference: just as Macdonald had turned Southern California into a moral landscape for his fiction, Staalesen had done the same for western Norway. My life’s goal quickly became a journey to Bergen—and a few years later, that is exactly what happened.
This lengthy introduction says that for me, as for readers around the globe, the appearance of a new Varg Veum novel has become a major reading event. And this makes the first English-language publication of 1991’s Bitter Flowers a remarkable experience. Those who follow the Veum chronicles now know a lot more about Varg than we did a decade and a half ago. Veum today is older and much more ruminative than he was back then. Today, Varg is more inclined to believe in that famous Lew Archer insight: “I have a secret passion for mercy, but justice is what keeps happening to people.” In Bitter Flowers, we find Veum grappling with the world’s evil to the point that a case gone wrong has put him in the grasp of akvavit, the dangerous Scandinavian tipple that is always at arm’s reach in his office desk drawer. And this time it’s got him bad: he’s just done a stint in rehab.
He’s better at the book’s beginning—to the point that he is considering returning to work via a housesitting job for a high-dollar mansion in the Bergen suburbs. This on the suggestion of Lisbeth Finslow, a physiotherapist who has been working with Varg in his rehabilitative stage. There is a bit of a spark going on between Lisbeth and Varg, but it will not ignite. When she takes him for a tour of the property in question, they find a body in the swimming pool, after which Lisbeth completely disappears.
All of that is just the first chapter. Nobody hooks like Staalesen hooks: he always keeps you reading “just one more chapter”—until it’s dawn. The larger hook in Bitter Flowers is one that clearly makes Staalesen and Ross Macdonald soulmates, in case there were any doubt. It isn’t long until Varg, in search of the missing Lisbeth, runs smack into the kind of dysfunctional and gothic family that Lew Archer encountered in every book. This bunch, the Schroder-Olsons, has more skeletons that you could stuff in a cave. One of them is the question of what exactly happened to their beautiful, angelic daughter Siv that left her, as a young woman, with a 4-year-old mental state for life. It was a fall down the stairs—but what were the exact circumstances of that fall, and who else was involved? When Lisbeth Finslow, who began these convolutions, turns up dead and the true identity of the dead man in the swimming pool is discovered, all these threads converge. The most important question is what does all this have to do with the old “Camilla Case,” in which a little girl went missing one night, never to be found? You will not see the ending of this expertly woven tale coming, so don’t even try.
I have taken some pains to compare Staalesen and Macdonald in this piece because it is clear to me that Staalesen is bearing a torch. Macdonald’s Lew Archer was often a kind of detective genealogist, teasing out the rotted roots of long-buried family traumas. Varg Veum does this as well, and Veum echoes Archer in his environmental concerns. The action of Bitter Flowers, for example, takes place in amid a massive environmental protest that is threatening to shake the very foundation of the Schroder-Olson holdings. Veum, like Archer, is destined to remain alone in his quest to make sense of the universe. Indeed, he is destined to fail more often than to succeed. As Veum regretfully notes upon realizing that he will never be able to give the sister of Lisbeth Finslow the answers she has sought from him, “I sighed out loud as I rang off. Yet another person I was going to disappoint. Someone else I was going to bring a different message from the one she was expecting. Another seed sown that would never flower.”
As much a detective fiction owes to the terse sentences of Ross Macdonald, Staalesen is the far superior writer. He plots brilliantly, never loses sight of the humanity of even the most minor characters. He writes prose that if cut, would bleed—even in translation, thanks to the excellent Don Bartlett. It is well-nigh time for a compendium of Varg Veum bon mots: “She reminded me of a polished Cadillac with visible rust spots.” “The veins (on his hand) protruded like inverted trenches on a battlefield.” My favorite from Bitter Flowers, “Civilization is one of those places that it takes much longer to leave than to return to.”
There are, of course, the descriptive passages where Bergen comes alive again and again as a major character: “Bergen and the seven mountains unfolded beneath us. Nordnes headland pointed north, as if showing us the broad path to perdition.” God almighty! Who writes that beautifully on every page? Down to the word. I’m quite sure that Norway knows what a treasure it has in Staalesen, and I’m thrilled to see the rest of world finding out, book by book.
This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.