Friday, December 17, 2010


Private Detective Varg Veum is hired by Sidsel Skagestol, who is separated from her husband, to try and find her teenage daughter Torild, who has disappeared.
Varg Veum begins by questioning Torild's friends and their parents, but his investigations will lead him through Bergen's underworld where young women are bought and sold; and the case becomes connected to the discovery of the body of a seventy year old judge dressed in women's underwear in one of the town's better hotels.

Gunnar Staalesen has twice won Norway's top crime fiction prize, the Golden Pistol, and published the first book in the long running Varg Veum series in 1977. The Writing on the Wall, translated by Hal Sutcliffe, dates from 1995 and is the 11th book in the series.

Varg Veum is a pun on the expression in Norwegian, varg i veum which means persona non grata or outlaw. Varg means wolf or culprit. Varg Veum was a social worker specializing in child care until he became disillusioned with the hopeless life situations of some of the children, and left the service to become a private detective.

I did find this book a little bit ponderous and predictable, while the first person narrative limited both the action and possible plot development. That said it was a solid private eye novel with a subject matter, the exploitation of young teenage girls, that possibly needed bringing to public attention in conservative Norway back in 1995. The author obviously feels strongly about his subject matter, but attempts to lighten the mood with descriptive passages that take you to winter in Norway, and are in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the plot.

Around Lille Lungegard Lake the flock of ducks had thinned out considerably. Only the omnivorous gulls tottered about on the half melted ice, pecking around one of the holes near the edge in the hope of finding something to eat.

However the character of Varg Veum came over to me as a bit one dimensional, and there was a jerkiness in the narrative with incidents appearing to be added on to the basic plot. But then perhaps I have become too reliant on plot pyrotechnics and outlandish characters for excitement to fully appreciate a solid private eye story.
Of course reading the eleventh book in a series first is not the best introduction to a character, but the out of order publishing of Scandinavian authors seems almost unavoidable.

'In other words, the power apparatus! The people who occupy positions of power in society at large also have to be in a position of power when they buy sex too. They have to feel secure and feel they're on top, literally, so they won't be challenged just where they feel most vulnerable, if you get my drift.'

I will possibly try another Varg Veum book, and see if the character grows on me, because his fifteen year old social commentary is perhaps even more relevant to our society today.

'I believe you when you -! You sound just as daft as those social freaks in Child Welfare and places! You're all just as daft, the whole lot of you! You lot don't have a fucking clue about-anything-about what it's like to be young nowadays...'
Suddenly there were tears in her eyes.


Blogger Dorte H said...

I have read a handful of Staalesen´s Varg Veum novels. "Solid police procedurals" is a good description, I´d say, but they have always struck me as a bit oldfashioned - perhaps it is because I don´t live in Norway, though.

11:20 AM  

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