Book Review: Where Roses Never Die

Where Roses Never Die cover Vis copy 2

Where Roses Never Die, by Gunner Staalsen (translated by Don Bartlett), is set three years after the first of the Varg Veum series to be translated into English, We Shall Inherit the Wind, which I review here.

At the start of the story Private Investigator Veum is in a bad way. He gets through each day by drinking and has been funding his habit by taking on the cases he would prefer to shun. The arrival in his office of Maja Misvaer, whose three year old daughter, Mette, disappeared from outside their home almost twenty-five years ago, offers him a chink of light in a life that has been overcome by the darkness of memory and loss.

The book opens with a robbery in a jewellery store during which an apparently random passer by is shot and subsequently dies. The robbers make their getaway by boat and, three months later, with no leads to follow, the police have all but given up on solving the crime. Veum followed the case in the papers but pays it little attention until he discovers that the murdered man had lived in the same housing complex as the little girl, whose wherabouts he has been commissioned to find, at the time she disappeared.

Veum interviews the police officers who investigated the initial disappearance as well as all those who lived in the five houses built around the courtyard where Mette was last seen playing. He discovers that these families were close in an unexpected way. With dogged determination he circumvents their reluctance to talk and digs into their pasts, unearthing secrets they had held close for decades.

The writing makes much use of narrative alongside Veum’s musings on the case. The voice I was hearing in my head brought to mind TV cops from the 70s with the use of similes and Veum’s moralistic stance, somewhat hypocritical given his own past behaviour. The feminist in me bristled at some of the attitudes but they realistically evoke the time and place. Norway, with its dark weather and uncompromising landscape, reflect the protagonist.

The plot twists and turns around each new revelation offering the reader much to ponder. The events leading up to the denouement had me dreading what was to be revealed. Despite my apprehension I could not look away.

A tense, starkly captivating read this is a must for fans of Nordic Noir. Highly recommended to all who look for depth and tenebrosity in their crime fiction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Defenceless

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The Defenceless, by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston) was perfect reading for a weekend when the media was overrun by privileged Europeans wringing their hands over what to do about an influx of desperate refugees seeking sanctuary, yet wary of upsetting their own comfortable lives. This is the second in a series of crime thrillers featuring investigator Anna Fekete, who herself fled a warzone as a child. Set in Finland the tale is as dark and challenging as the Scandinavian weather.

The reader is introduced to Sammy, a Pakistani Christian who was smuggled into Finland alongside the heroin grown to “feed the hungry veins of Western Europeans”. We learn that he too is an addict, hiding from the authorities since his application for asylum was rejected. We meet Macke, the small time dealer from whom Sammy buys his regular fix, and witness the death of the first of the story’s victims. Vilho, an old man and a neighbour, enters Macke’s apartment to complain of loud music, and suffers a violent end.

The author makes no attempt to present the growing number of refugees in this cold, Finnish town as upstanding members of the community; they include criminals and addicts. There are also those who are highly educated and wish to work but cannot make use of their superior skills until granted asylum, a process which can take many years spent eking out a living with whatever menial jobs they can find, the constant threat of deportation hanging over them.

Senior Constable Anna Fekete and her work partner, Esko Niemi, have their own problems with addiction, to alcohol and nicotine. When Vilho’s body is found, hit by a car driven by the economic migrant, Gabriella, the first thing to rule out is if she was drunk or high whilst driving. I pondered how the reader would feel towards this pale skinned, young women had she been found to be temporarily impaired; how this would contrast with the dismissal of the dark haired and dark skinned asylum seekers whom Esko wishes to send home, even if to their deaths, rather than have them feeding their habits on ‘his’ streets.

Such comparisons run through the various threads of the story adding depth and challenging reader perceptions. The futility of such nationalistic attitudes is highlighted in Anna’s musings on her beloved grandmother:

“Grandma, that dear, wonderful, wise, warm-hearted lady who had never once moved house, but who had still lived in five different states. The borders moved, rulers came and went, names changed and maps were redrawn”

Anna and Esko have more than just the death of an old man and a few illegal immigrants to deal with. As their investigations progress a blood stained knife is found in woodland and an elderly woman, living in the same apartment complex as Vilho and Macke, is reported missing. Their boss at the Violent Crimes Unit, Chief Inspector Pertti Virkkunen, is also concerned with wider issues. Intelligence reports suggest that a powerful crime syndicate, calling themselves the Black Cobra’s, are trying to establish themselves in Finland and could ignite a turf war with the resident Hell’s Angels. He believes that the drug dealers in Anna’s case may be linked to this bigger problem.

There are numerous plot lines to follow: the treatment of legal and illegal immigrants; the impact of small and big time criminal gangs; Anna’s disquiet about Gabriella; the relationships that adult children have with their relatives. The author throws in such asides as how distasteful some find the idea of geriatric sex, and how fearful a consumerist society is of oil supplies running out despite the fact that man lived without it for centuries.

Alongside all of this Anna must deal with the casual racism and misogyny of her colleagues. She is lonely with her family far away but eschews a relationship as the men she meets wish to turn her into their idea of what a woman should be. There is darkness but also humour. I shivered in the raw landscape, felt wary of the brooding woods. Esko may not have been likeable but I empathised with his pain.

The best crime fiction offers so much more than the solving of crimes. This book offers a twisting and turning plot presented within a raw and tightly written narrative. It also takes the reader inside the heads of every character, enabling them to see their world anew.

A powerful and captivating read that I did not wish to put down so finished in a day. I will be absorbing the thoughts elicited for much longer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: We Shall Inherit the Wind

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We Shall Inherit the Wind, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett) is a dark and brooding crime thriller which transports the reader to the wind swept islands of western Norway. The voice of the protagonist is distinctly male and Scandinavian but the female characters are no mere adornments. This is a story populated with a strong and often hostile cast as befits the environment in which they play their parts.

The opening chapter sees Varg Veum, a fifty-five year old private investigator, sitting by the hospital bedside of his girlfriend Karin who is in a coma with life threatening injuries. Verg blames himself for her condition and what follows is the story of how they ended up in this place.

Varg reminds me of the investigators from television series of old yet this story is contemporary in nature. At its heart is a controversial wind farm development on a remote island and the clash between business interests, religious fundamentalists, the economic prospects for locals and a variety of environmental concerns. It is rarely made clear who the good or the bad guys are. The reader is not unduly led to take sides in the various arguments, a nebulosity which adds to the strength of the tale.

Travelling around the fjords and islands the bleakly beautiful landscape dominates the narrative. As the various characters fight for their corners the reader is shown the transience of individuals when placed against a backdrop of unforgiving weather and mighty sea.

There are detailed descriptions of the people Varg meets, their physical appearance and the clothes they wear. Houses are also fully presented: surroundings, building style, colour schemes, furniture, ornaments, the pictures on the walls.

I enjoyed some of the similes used:

An unknown face in an out of the way place “like a flower arrangement in a garage workshop”

A female character “like a perfumed glacier”

I will ever after think of the old library at Trinity College, Dublin as “the place where all books went when they died”

The plot is compelling with new intrigues unfolding as each page is turned. I had not anticipated the denouement. Although somewhat shocking in nature it was a satisfying conclusion.

This book is already an international bestseller and it is easy to see why. A distinctive and welcome addition to the crime fiction genre, I look forward to reading more of Varg Vaum’s adventures which the publisher has promised will be released over the next couple of years.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.