Fallen Angels by Gunnar Staalesen

Book review

Purdue University, Ind.

“But at my back I always hear Time’s Winged Chariot, Hurrying near.”
— Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

The many English-speaking followers of Norwegian mystery writer Gunnar Staalesen have a real treat in store this month:  Orenda Books has issued Fallen Angels, the first English translation of Staalesen’s 1989 Varg Veum novel, Faldne Engler. 

For those unfamiliar, Staalesen’s creation is a private investigator and former social worker, who lives and works in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city after Oslo, on the west coast of that country. Since Veum’s first appearance in Yours Until Death (1979), the international audience for this series has exploded, helped considerably by the very respectful series of films based on the novels that began appearing in 2008.

Here is the interesting thing about this publishing story:  Fallen Angels is the eighth book in a series that now stretches to 22 volumes. From the beginning, Staalesen intended to allow Veum to age, and aged he has: the youthful Veum was a rough-and-tumble sort, whose cases regularly placed him in mortal danger. But through the years Varg, who was born in 1942, has become a more cerebral figure, one who is now more inclined to confront his cases with his wits, as opposed to his now-diminished brawn. 

Those who have created series characters always have to make such a choice sooner or later:  in America, Sun Grafton allowed her persona Kinsey Millhone not to age by grounding her cases in the 1980s. But Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, one of Staalesen’s models, got a LOT older as that detective’s odyssey ranged over some 30 years. And so it has been with Veum—which makes Fallen Angels, as we shall see, a pivotal book for his followers.

Fallen Angels

Photo courtesy of Jerry Holt
Crime fiction author Gunnar Staalesen at the Bergen train station.

Varg Veum is approaching 50 in this book—he is 46, to be exact—and he is in a deeply reflective state of mind. Once divorced and the father of a 15-year-old son, he has plenty of reason to wonder where he has been and where the road ahead is leading him. Like many detectives before him, he has spent a lifetime grappling with the problem of evil, and although he has achieved some small salvations for the lost souls who have found their way to his Bergen office, many of them have met sad and unjust ends. 

It is a downright weary Varg who begins this book with a nearly random journey to an old friend’s funeral, where his chance meeting with another ghost from his past puts him back in contact with some members—both dead and alive—of the rock group The Harpers. One member, Jakob, is now—believe it or not—a church organist, and he is married to Rebecca, the first woman Varg ever loved. 

Things kick in when the once-charismatic former lead singer of The Harpers, Johnny Solheim, a philandering cad with an aging Elvis pout, is knifed to death and we quickly see that is not coincidental that two other members of The Harpers have also died under ugly circumstances. Is somebody systematically taking them out?  When Varg discovers that the victims have received ominous—and anonymous—cards depicting a fallen angel, the atmosphere of Bergen at Christmastime turns perilous with dread.

This is the point where Fallen Angels snares you and does not let go. As Varg races to stop a possible serial killer, it is actually his own past that confronts him in every shadowy street and every dark stairwell as his journey leads him through the very locales of his own childhood:  “Such is life. When you walk around your home town, you meet your own past everywhere,” Varg sadly observes. “Childhood is a wound that never heals…All the years you have lived are here; like dirty footprints in the snow behind you.”

Photo: Courtney Hardin
During a 2019 study tour, Professor.Jerry Holt (right) presented author Gunnar Staalesen with an exact replica of the Maltese Falcon.

You may notice that Staalesen writes the kind of prose that puts him above and beyond the tag of genre writer. And the beating heart of this book would be right at home in a novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard or, for that matter, Dostoevsky. In fact, one lengthy dialogue between Veum and an errant priest will put you in mind of the Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov. There is something in this prose that lets the reader know that this book is quite personal:  that Staalesen, who is five years younger than his character Varg, is working some things out. 

In the last analysis Fallen Angels deals with the demons that haunt us all:  the ravages of time, the inevitability of death—and the destruction of innocence, the last being where the novel finds its title.  Is there also hope here?  Yes.  Varg finally locates a shaky faith in things that last:  “The countryside … was greater than all of us. It would still be there, looking much the same when we had all gone for good…and only the sky and sea had outlived everything.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, 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.