Sunday, August 28, 2016

Nordic Noir: Gunnar Staalesen, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE

What a great discovery! This is the first time I've read a crime novel by Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen, and I'm really late finding his work ... he's written more than 20 titles, most significantly his series featuring detective Varg Veum, which began back in 1977.

Veum is a classic disillusioned private investigator, and at the opening of WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE he's completing a three-year binge of alcohol and self-pity relating to the death of his (female) partner, which is never fully explained here (I will have to get some of the earlier books, to find out more). And he's not in the mood to take any case that might improve his self-esteem; he's been "working" at lower and lower levels, taking assignments that can be done drunk.

But the mother who walks into his office has a plea he finds hard to resist: Her three-year-old daughter's case, a kidnapping from almost 25 years ago, is about to hit the statute of limitations, and no perpetrator was ever found -- nor was the child. Little Mette is still the center of her mother's life, and Maja, the mom, wants the case properly solved at last. Why Veum, of all people, to solve it? Well, he had solved another unrelated case of a missing child from the 1970s. And as he begins to realize he's going to take the case, he confronts a very large hurdle: getting sober enough to do this.

The dark cover of the book actually kept me from reading it for a while, so I was relieved to discover that despite the image, WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE does not contain child abuse in any of the gruesome sexually perverse modes that are currently in vogue (I hope desperately that the real world contains less of such crime than the fictional one). Instead, it's in some ways a traditional PI investigation, with some intriguing twists. For one thing, the child and her family lived in a somewhat quirky five-family environmental project, one of those miniature communes created in an attempt to use land more wisely and kindly. For another, one of the adults who lived there at the time Mette was kidnapped (and killled? it seems likely) was just shot to death in a jewelry-store robbery. There's no obvious connection, but the death has shaken Mette's mother out of her own lethargy, into pressing Veum for answers.

Although the book's blurbs refer to sharp teeth, darkness, and brutality, I found instead that Staalesen's expert storytelling tested and tasted the forms of love and commitment, along with what can go wrong inside well-meaning families. I enjoyed it a lot -- and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a moderately dark but very humane mystery. Not for kids, but a thoughtful book that probes what it is to be an adult in a close community, and the value of trust.

Oh, if you've been reading Scandinavian noir: This is not as dark as most, despite the cover. I'd compare it more to the British crime fiction of, say, Ruth Rendell, or Colin Dexter. Good stuff, from Orenda Books via Trafalgar Square Publishing (release date Sept. 1).

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