Friday, 30 August 2013


There is something familiar about Hege, the prostitute who hires Varg Veum to find her friend Margrethe, or Maggi, another hooker who has vanished off the streets of Bergen. Hege, it turns out, had once dated Veum's son, and the coincidence sets the tone for this tale of deep shadows in Norwegian life. It is the story of big city crime in a small village of a city, of the mores of small town mentality clashing with the morality, or lack of it, in modern life. The underlying theme, of course, is that Norwegian hearts are cold, even when they're showing warmth.

Veum learns quickly that Maggi's brother has just escaped from prison, and soon he's involved with a missing shipment of drugs, a Russian hooker beaten by two men she went off with after Maggi refused to service them the night she disappeared, and most of all the sad story of Maggi's family, and the local committee who had taken it upon themselves to help raise her and her siblings when her parents proved incapable of it.

Veum is a different kind of detective—he was a social worker, once upon a time, and much of his detecting seems to run along those lines. The serious crimes of the present have their echoes in the quieter crimes of the past, and although Gunnar Staalesen seems to be compared frequently to Raymond Chandler, he struck me as somehow closer to Ross MacDonald, and Veum much more like Lew Archer than Philip Marlowe, more of a blank slate of a character, a man whose own character remains neutral while he provides the reader with a sympathetic entry point to a different sort of world. Also like both those detectives, he's above the lure of the one-night stand; perhaps Veum is the one whose heart is more than cold.

How well this works depends on how well-drawn the supporting characters are, and Staalesen is extremely good on the people Veum appears to understand best—the ones he recognises from his social services career. He's less good with criminals, although here there is a bit of Philip Marlowe in the way he does stand up to men much more violent than he is, and is relatively successful at it.

The story also depends on the balance between drawing it out and missing the obvious being deft, here the mixing of the subplots keeps Veum, and us, guessing even when we seem to know what was going on. In the end, Staalesen, like Archer, uncovers the hidden past, and watches it rebound to the present. Although the plot does revolve, in plot, around using a rusty nail edge to cut through bindings, which was old in the silent movie serials, there is a neat twist, and there is also the sense that the Norwegian justice system is incapable of really coping with the worst their society throws up.

Cold Hearts by Gunnar Staalesen
Arcadia £8.99 ISBN 9781908129437

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