Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

Review published on July 19, 2017.

A long time ago I read a couple of Staalesen’s Varg Veum detective novels and I confess I was lukewarm about them; the plots were good but I just didn’t find them very engaging. Something has changed since then because I was gripped by Wolves in the Dark and the predecessor Where Roses Never Die (Orenda, 2016). Maybe my taste has changed but I suspect Staalesen is at the height of his powers right now and his novels are getting better. Rather than the tired and samey writing you often get with a long running series there is a real energy to Staalesen’s new book – it is hard hitting, powerful and original. I enjoyed this novel so much I will be looking out for novels in the series that I missed in the intervening years, although not many are easy to find in print in English. Wolves in the Dark has a strong plot that deals frankly with the issue of paedophile networks and child abuse. So make no mistake, it is a very dark novel that won’t be for everybody. However, there is a sprinkling of P.I. humour at times and a well worked theme is tackled with a fresh eye. This is ‘Nordic Noir’ for the initiated (for a first crack at Scandi-noir try early Mankell or the Icelandic writer Ragnar Jónasson). Not being familiar with Veum’s history is not a drawback to enjoying this novel to the full.

The name, Varg Veum, can be translated as lone wolf and comes from the old Norse Vargr í véum, meaning ‘a wolf in the sanctuary’ or outlaw, perfect for a P.I. In Wolves in the Dark, Veum has been having a tough time of it the last three years. He hasn’t coped well with the loss of his girlfriend, Karin. So when the police arrest him, he knows he is innocent but the alcohol fuelled existence of the last few years means certain details or even whole periods of time are hazy. How is Veum supposed to prove his innocence to everyone else? Veum is suspected of being part of a paedophile ring, and worse, being one of the instigators – distributing horrible and shocking material across the globe. He is taken in as part of a sting operation that nets a few other locals, men they say he is in league with. Neither the prosecutor or the police are inclined to believe Veum’s denials in the light of the evidence, depraved and degrading material on his computer. His lawyer, Vidar Waagenes urges Veum to try and piece together his recent life to find out who might have a grudge strong enough to want to frame him for such a heinous crime. The clues are all there in his head if only he can sober up and get his thoughts in order. So Veum starts to keep a notebook but the problem is being on the inside doesn’t allow him to track down the real criminals. As the evidence mounts against him Veum seizes a chance to escape. Now he is a ‘lone wolf’ on the hunt again. Some very dangerous and depraved people want him gone, the police want him back inside.

The novel starts strongly, Veum backed into a corner, dredging his memory, piecing snippets of the past together – cases he has blundered through in the last few years. Each different case is presented as a sort of short story, they seemed interesting but unconnected, potentially irrelevant. I wondered if Staalesen was using material that wouldn’t quite make a novel as filler. However, there was method here and actually everything ties neatly into the whole eventually. When Veum goes on the run and starts investigating his old clients the plot really grips. Once the pieces of the puzzle began to slot together it’s a riveting read. Staalesen is a master of pacing and plotting and I should have trusted all along that it would all make sense in the end.

It is difficult to explain why Veum gets under your skin, he is not an heroic character but he is broadly honest and dogged, motivated by the desire not to seen as a paedophile or spend several years in jail. He has sunk from respected detective to lush over the years. This nightmare could be the remaking of the man. It is fascinating to see his character come to life as he puts himself back together in order to save himself. Veum sobers up enough to mount a one man crusade to clear his name. Other characters are well drawn but they are dominated by Veum’s presence; he is very much the focal point of the novel. As the denouement approaches I was willing Veum on, everything happens very quickly as in the best thrillers. Wolves in the Dark is a very satisfying read.

The novel is translated by Don Bartlett, who has worked on other Veum books with Staalesen and what emerges is a no nonsense, hard-boiled style that keeps the plot moving. Staalesen gets to the underbelly of Norway’s ordered society. While Veum is very much the Bergen local, inhabitant of the beautiful city that is the backdrop to the novels, he is also a descendent of the American hard boiled oeuvre, the solo private eye (as Barry Forshaw says, ‘in the tradition of Ross MacDonald’). But Staalesen’s writing has its own unique style; clearly noir, abrasive and modern, very European and totally in your face.

Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen has been writing about his detective Varg Veum for forty years (this is the anniversary), he is a prize winning/best selling author. His fans include Ian Rankin and he has been a leading influence in the rise of Scandi-noir. I suspect that his writing is marmite, love it or hate it – I love it. Other novels in the Veum series currently available in English are Where Roses Never Die, We Shall Inherit the Wind, The Consorts of Death and Cold Hearts.

Paul Burke 4/3

Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen
Orenda Books 9781910633724 pbk Jun 2017

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