Gunnar Staalesen: National Icon

Crime Corner

Photo: Berit Roald / NTB
Norway’s esteemed crime fiction writer Gunnar Staalesen hails from rainy Bergen.

Along with keeping up with Scandinavian noir, I’ve been reading a bunch of Norwegian history lately and that is how I became interested in Fridtjof Nansen, well known to Norwegians as an explorer, Nobel Prize winner, and museum curator at the University of Bergen. Along the way, he led the first team to go from one side of Greenland to the other on cross-country skis. Quite the dude—and a fine writer too: here is Nansen at a particularly existential moment, somewhere in the snow:

“I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.”

Whoa! That is remarkable. Years before Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald or Gunnar Staalesen, there is the basis—in fact, the central plot—for any great noir story.  And it comes not from a crime writer but from an adventurer.

The three mystery writers I referenced earlier know very well the “lonely places” where the shadow world and the Mean Streets meet: those lonely places served as road maps for the Los Angeles that Chandler dreamed on a tobacco cloud for us and the dangerous, boozy Southern California suburbs where the violence, the death—and especially the loneliness—just become more acute.

And in recent years, as more and more readers discovered how fertile the Scandinavian noir landscape is—the “lonely places” of Oslo and Bergen and the Arctic coast have become very popular spots.

• • • • • •

Among the Norwegians, the world now celebrates Jo Nesbø, whose series police detective Harry Hole inhabits some of the loneliest of places. He is in some ways a throwback to those 19th-century sailors who went forth despite a dread of what lay before them. And, of course, Karen Fossum’s Inspector Sejer knows that in his world the lonely places are in the mind, buried and malignant.

And then there is Gunnar Staalesen, Norway’s most celebrated noir writer and a lifetime resident of Bergen, who has been chronicling the very dark world of private eye Varg Veum for 20 books now. Great news! He arrives with a new entry, entitled Haunted by Death, to appear in Norwegian next year with an English version to follow, along with translations in several other languages as well. In a Zoom conversation just before Easter, Staalesen unveiled that title and talked a bit about the new installment:

Gunnar Staalesen: Chronology is important here because the new book locates us in 2002, and of course Varg has already lived a lot of life since then.

Jerry Holt: So why are we dropping back in time?

Gunnar: There is quite a bit about Varg’s past that I haven’t recorded—and there are a few surprises about Varg’s family history this time around as well.

Jerry: Excellent!

Gunnar: … And perhaps the reader may find out a bit more regarding the Ice Valley Woman as well!

• • • • • •

The Ice Valley Woman? Yes! The author is referring to someone known well to all Norwegians: the so-far nameless female victim who was discovered by hikers in Isdalen near Bergen over the ensuing years has attained the moniker “Isdal Woman,” pretty much as the similarly ill-fated Elizabeth Short acquired the nickname Black Dahlia in 1947 after her grotesque slaughter in a Los Angeles vacant lot.

If you follow Gunnar Staalesen’s career at all closely, you may have surmised that in this real world of ours Staalesen has done public lectures on the Isdal mystery —in fact, he is an expert on this cold case:  when I brought a group of students to Bergen in December 2019, Staalesen led us up the mountain to the very spot that the Isdal woman was found all these years ago.   There may well be a fictional reckoning  coming regarding Varg and the Isdal Woman and I, for one, want to be around for that.  And that is a very good reason for those who read in Norwegian to seek out Staalesen’s Bergen Trilogy—perhaps with particular attention to the third volume.

• • • • • •

Gunnar Staalesen has returned to the mystery of the Isdal Woman throughout his career and included her story in a Varg Veum comic series.

Staalesen, now in his mid-70s but looking 20 years younger, has wrung a lot of value from his lifetime so far. Born in Bergen, Staalesen had a teacher father, and his mother was a nurse. He grew up amid the erosion of Nazi occupation and often took refuge in books—and there he found an entire new world in the noir fiction of Chandler, Hammett, and particularly Ross MacDonald.

In many ways, Staalesen’s Varg Veum has his roots in MacDonald’s Lew Archer—neither Veum nor Archer is an action hero; both employ their mental skills and often function as therapists rather than traditional detectives. In fact, Varg has worked in Child Services and has a soft spot for cases that involve young people.

The laconic Veum, wounded by his past and none-too-sure about his future, uses his detective work as a sort of lifeline: his most satisfied moments come when, in the  course of an investigation, he wins even a small victory for the disenfranchised.

Along with the Varg Veum novels, Staalesen has both worked for and been produced by the Norwegian National Theatre, and thanks to the Varg Veum television series, the radio shows, and the graphic novels, he has had plenty of success in the media. And, of course, those “milk carton mysteries” created in collaboration with artist Arild Midthun, won Staalesen a very different but no less appreciative new audience.

• • • • • •

Though Varg Veum, through fate and chance, seems to be destined to live and  die a loner, Staalesen is a family man. His longtime marriage to his wife, Ellen, is of the storybook variety, and the two of them are also blessed with two successful sons, their wives, and four grandchildren. Is Staalesen living an alternate life through his character Veum? Hardly:

“I think of Varg Veum as a living person who I have known for a very long time. I often consult him on a variety of matters. He is my friend…. I might even say my best friend. But he is not me,” Staalesen said.

My hope as a reader is that both Staalesen and Veum are going to be around for a long, long time. Staalesen has been very successful in using the detective story to find a gauge to the moral temper of our times. Norway’s oil boom and the changes it brought and the environmental peril the world now suffers have never taken a backseat. In their issues, these books are about as real as real gets.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

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.