Crime Corner: Mirror Image

Gunnar Staalesen sees life through a dark filter in Mirror Image

mirror image

Photo (center) Berit Roald / NTB
Author Gunnar Staalesen is surrounded by the book covers of his latest crime novel, Mirror Image in English and Som i et speil in Norwegian.

“This was one of those Mondays when you looked at life through a grey filter and with a chafed soul.”

—Varg Veum in Gunnar Staalesen’s Mirror Image

In his novel Mirror Image Gunnar Staalesen takes us on a trip down memory lane—or to 1993, to be specific. This entry was originally published in 2002, when it won the author a coveted Riverton Prize, but this is the first publication in English.

Readers who have followed the journey of Staalesen’s iconic detective Varg Veum recognize the landscape immediately, and they will also know that this a very bleak period in Veum’s life.

Veum’s hometown of Bergen is on stunning display as usual. As Veum crosses a mountain range, he tells us that “the whole of the Bergen valley unfolded in front of me, adorned, as it were, with glitter in the hazy blue twilight.”

But those readers will also recognize a somewhat younger Varg: the novel takes place in 1993, when he was 41 and his longtime love Karin was not yet dead: Karin’s death, on her birthday, plunged Veum into an alcoholic tailspin (see We Shall Inherit the Wind from 2010). It also accounts for one of the more heartbreaking passages in all of detective fiction: I read it every time I am feeling too happy.

Those who read this column know that I consider the Veum novels among the finest series of detective novels even written, right up there with Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. The scruffy Veum embodies perfectly both the character virtues and the character flaws that are common in private eyes of any nationality: a loner (in fact, a lone wolf, as his name implies), usually broke, a little too fond of the bottle (in Varg’s case, aquavit), and possessing an irresistible affinity for the screwed-over, the dispossessed, and the outcasts of the world.

But like Chandler’s Marlowe and MacDonald’s Lew Archer, Varg Veum also provides us a running commentary on his home turf—Bergen, and the landscape stretching to the north, to the islands, and to other locales where the case he is working on may take him.

This is not a landscape in stasis by any means: since its discovery of oil in the North Sea a half century ago, Norway has been a country in constant flux, dealing with a new society that is far more urban than rural as it once was, and which now is faced with all the vices that added wealth can bring. Since Varg’s cases can often involve him righting a wrong but failing to collect his fee, the detective remains outside this new world, but caught up in it. As Varg puts it:

“For a little while longer I stood gazing across the sea. The view was powerful and impressive. You didn’t need much imagination to see the long ships along the coast, from… the Golden Age…. Times had changed. Now the long ships had been replaced by cruisers and speedboats, and right out there, behind the horizon, it wasn’t Iceland waiting but the oil platforms in the North Sea.”

Speaking of mirror images! What Varg is seeing is a vision very like what a middle-aged Chandler, who invented Philip Marlowe in financial desperation after he was fired from an oil company, would have seen as 1939’s Los Angeles, in all its corruption, unfolded itself before him. “Down these mean streets a man must go,” wrote Chandler, and Varg Veum’s cobbled Bergen streets are every bit as mean as the pavement of L.A.

In Mirror Image, all these factors collide like caroms. A plot that will ultimately involve such big-city problems for starters as the dumping of toxic materials and then the very timely question of illegal immigration begins when a cash-strapped Varg (when he is asked if his profession is profitable, Varg replies: “Not the way I do it.”). He accepts a seemingly unrelated case in which Berit Breheim, an upscale lawyer, wants him to find her missing sister Bodil and her husband, who have gone missing.

Varg anticipates a simple task that plays to his strong suit: the locating of missing persons. But things get messy—very messy—when death raises its ever-present noir head in the form of a double tragedy in which a woman has driven her lover off one of those perilous Norwegian cliffs and into the sea.

In Staalesen’s novels, past and present are ever connected. What happened in the 1950s in this novel has terrifying repercussions for present day and all those repercussions play out as Varg finds dovetails everywhere.

In the United States, this reality is the mainstay of the novels of MacDonald—in fact, there are some echoes of MacDonald’s The Underground Man in Mirror Image, although Staalesen’s latest is very much its own thing, and that is because the character Varg Veum is very much his own man.

Whereas American operatives like Lew Archer tend to be more passive receivers of case information, Veum is ever active, ever ready to get into a reluctant witness’ face and to be tough when tough is appropriate to the occasion.

Veum’s “personal experience” tells him that “everyone lie(s),” and to cut through those lies he is ready to use all the tools in his meager toolbox. His payoff, however, is tremendously important, if sometimes only to him: “Then all at once … I could see other images, newer ones, I would hear the echo of words that had been said, of lies that had been told, the impromptu art of veiling the truth, of deceiving much cleverer people than me.”

But Varg is clever enough to solve this case and to do a little good—remember the smuggling of illegals subplot—in the process. Staalesen is up to some interesting tricks in Mirror Image, as he bends his genre by exploring multiple points of view and time juxtaposition, and we loyalists can only wonder what comes next for Varg: will we journey further into the past—perhaps his own past?

“Shadows of the past, glimpses of destiny,” Staalesen writes, even as he continues to chronicle the history of his country and city and the life of one incurably troubled but very worthy private investigator.

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.