SECOND OPINION: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

Review published on September 14, 2018.

Staalesen is a big fan of Ross MacDonald, who raised the bar for the crime novel in America and dented the perception that genre novelists can’t be literary writers. For me, the same could be said of Staalesen, a thriller this good should be lauded for its literary merit too. Big Sister is a hard-boiled gem, gripping and thought provoking. Cleverly plotted and elegantly structured, this novel rates along side Staalesen’s best and that really is saying something. The novel has a classic noir opening; a young woman away from home for the first time has gone missing but Staalesen throws a curve ball at the same time, Veum is hit by a personal revelation dropped on him like a bomb. This makes the story more intriguing, as the plot unfolds the truth will out.

I didn’t just enjoy the storytelling in Big Sister, I savoured the novel’s smooth, easy style. Each chapter develops the plot and character, they sometimes distract and amuse, but crucial revelations are slipped in, it’s both subtle and punchy. The novel deals in themes of family and hidden secrets but manages to be fresh and original, no tropes or stereotypes here. We are all familiar with the sins of the past that have a way of coming back to haunt the present but Big Sister manipulates and twists the theme to great effect. Veum’s desire to solve the case and to understand the past becomes very personal – emotionally intense.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Raymond Chandler sums up the hardboiled private eye and, allowing for a little licence and a changed world, I have no doubt that Staalesen’s hero, Varg Veum, fits the mould. He is a natural descendent not only of Philip Marlowe, but also Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. We see that in the snappy dialogue and the unexpressed inner thoughts of Veum but also in the hard-boiled sensibilities of the story (including sharp, spare writing). Bergen private eye, Veum, is an ex-social worker, an aquavit drinker, although he seems to have reined that habit in a bit in this novel. As is appropriate to his age Veum has mellowed, he’s more personable, but he’s lost none his edge. None of the dogged determination that makes him a great detective creation. He’s as sharp as he ever was and, as this is 2003, he is even coming to terms with technology (a little bit anyway).

Veum’s office is tucked away on the third floor of a hotel (the owners couldn’t shift him so they just built around him). When an older woman walks into his office Veum senses the ghosts of the past. Norma Johanne Bakkevik announces herself as Veum’s sister. It’s not a total shock, when his mother died Veum had found Norma’s birth certificate and adoption papers but made no effort to find her. He discovers that the father she never knew was Peter Paul Haga, a murder victim in one of his old cases. Norma isn’t looking for a favour: “That would be a first,” she gets a family discount in the end. Her god-daughter, 19-year-old Emma Hagland, has gone missing. Emma was raised in Karmøy and recently moved to Bergen to join the nursing college. She moved into a flat with two other girls but sporadic communications finally dried up. Norma explains that Emma’s parents split when she was a child, her mother is a mess. Instinctively, Veum knows that the past is the key. Emma’s father, Robert Høie Hansen, has lived in Bergen for many years. Veum starts by interviewing Emma’s room mates, Kari and Helga, her father, the landlord and by ringing her friend in Berlin, Åsa Lavik. The father says he didn’t want to know his daughter, he doesn’t seem very concerned by her disappearance. As Veum finds nothing he can’t shake the feeling that something more complicated than a simple disappearance is going on. Veum starts trawling the family history, crucially trying to uncover the reason that Emma’s parents split up. Then Emma’s room mate Kari goes missing too. A terrible long-buried crime, a bikers club, an online suicide cult and personal tragedy make for a very satisfying mystery.

The Varg Veum novels make up one of the most consistently brilliant crime series out there and Staalesen is one of the writers who gave Scandi-Noir (Nordic-Noir) a good name. They haven’t all been translated into English but the following superb stories are available; The Writing on the Wall, Yours until Death, The Consorts of Death, Wolves in the Dark and Cold Heart. Clearly translator Don Bartlett has an excellent understanding of Staalesen’s writing.

Haunting, dark and totally noir, a great read.

Paul Burke 5/4

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen
Orenda Books 9781912374199 pbk Jun 2018

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