Author – Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Hal Sutcliffe)
Published – 1995 (2004 in translation)
Genre – Crime fiction
Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian author of over 20 crime fiction novels, around 15 of which feature his private detective Varg Veum. Staalesen has twice won the Riverton Prize / Rivertonprisen (Golden Revolver) and numerous books have been adapted into a series of successful Norwegian films.
Only a handful of his books have been translated into English so far, and of course those in the Veum series haven’t been translated in order. The Writing on The Wall is eleventh in the series with two earlier titles also in translation.
The book has a sombre opening – the death of Judge (rumoured to have been found in women’s underwear) and the funeral of the husband of Veum’s ex-wife. On returning to his office after the funeral Veum discover’s a potential client waiting for him – the mother of a missing teenage girl. Worryingly Torild has already been missing for some days and although her father (her parents are separated) has mentioned her disappearance to the police, no-one seems to be looking for her. Veum doesn’t have high hopes and his pessimistic view is proved correct when her body is discovered some distance from the town. Although no longer employed by the parents his interest is piqued when he takes Torild’s mother to view the spot and he realises that something doesn’t add up.
His investigation, both before and after the discovery of Torild’s body, introduces him to a world that she and her friends have been careful to keep secret from their unsuspecting parents. There is a flourishing prostitution industry in Bergen and the young, and under-age, girls are being recruited by unscrupulous criminals.
There are other threads to the story – the death of the judge, a macabre death threat to Veum – and a few red herrings on the way to the resolution. In the traditions of hard-boiled detectives like Marlowe or Spade the writing certainly evokes the atmosphere of the traditional American PIs. Although set in Norway this isn’t the sort of book where the author waxes lyrical about the location, the prose isn’t particularly descriptive – certainly not a book where the setting is important, the heart of the story is the issue and the plight of the girls. It feels quite similar, though, to the slightly less dark Season of the Witch by Árni Þórarinsson.
I came to this book with expectations that as it had been written 20 years ago it might feel dated but despite the fact that time and more importantly technology, have moved on this wasn’t the case.
I really liked the writing and for the most part it didn’t feel like a translation (always a plus for me). One quite quirky aspect is the dialogue. While it is the case the in real life people talk in half-finished sentences the dialogue is rammed full of ellipses as people break off mid sentence or pause when speaking. Just odd…
I hear that Orenda books will be publishing more English translations – I’m looking forward to them.