Book Review: Staalesen’s “Cold Hearts”

cold hearts

Thor A. Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

Almost 30 years ago, I read the first crime novel by Gunnar Staalesen, At Night All Wolves are Grey and I became hooked on Staalesen’s books. He has written more than 20 crime books involving his detective, Varg Veum, over the last thirty years, as well as a rich assortment of other fiction and non-fiction, including plays and cartoon books. He has received at least five book awards; the latest was the Riverton Award in 2006. With twelve Norwegian films based on his books, Gunnar Staalesen is a “folk hero” in the crime genre in Norway as well as other countries.

Having read all his five books in English and a few in Norwegian, I find I really like Varg Veum! Based on conversations I have had with a bookseller in Bergen, Gunnar Staalesen too is a delightful and very likable person.

Varg Veum is a private detective, but had been a social worker for several years. In both careers, Varg had frequent dealings with the police, who generally do not want him around.

A very bright, unconventional private detective with a very large heart, he loves Bergen and has a small ego and a very small bank account. Varg Veum has been the most popular crime solver of the Norwegian reading population for the last thirty years. In fact, twelve of his books have been converted to film by Norwegian filming companies.

Cold Hearts is a story about the disappearance of a young prostitute in which Varg, in his quest to find this young lady, uncovers not only the expected type of criminals that sustain their incomes on prostitutes and drug addicts, but finds that the source of the real crime was totally unexpected. The real crime was the behavior of the self-righteous “good families” who thought they knew how to help a dysfunctional family much better than the social services, but in actuality brought a total disaster to the family by arrogant judgment and amoral behavior.

As Varg explores answers to the disappearance of the young prostitute, he relies on skills he developed as a social worker to ask questions and learn from subtle human behaviors to get to the truth very patiently. In this quest, Varg makes many turns, often asked to stay away by the police, but he is undaunted. Being only human, he does have a very close call being held captive by a couple of desperate criminals. However, Varg utilizes his exceptional skill as a student of the young person’s mind to escape.

The book is very readable, as there is considerable dialogue and descriptive sections are not overbearing. Varg does love Bergen and you gain that feeling as he describes the streets, the parks, the harbor area, as well as the Bergen weather, as he chases the clues. As a true skill of a mystery novel, the reader cannot anticipate the conclusion until the last few pages. Staalesen is the master of this genre of crime mysteries, and I hope we will see more of his twenty plus Varg Veum books translated into English.

Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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