I’m not going to hide my feelings for Varg Veum. I got to know his habits, good and bad points, ups and downs, and various experiences over the course of several books and films. His appeal is strongly connected to Gunnar Staalesen’s masterful writing, astute observations, huge dose of realism and authenticity, and most importantly compassion that ultimately drives the private detective. Veum that I love would not exist outside his city of Bergen, well, he might but he would have been a different person. For me, and I believe for many other readers, Veum is and symbolises Bergen. Through his eyes I can discover the changes, atmosphere, history. The town’s polished sparkling surface for the international tourists eager to see the fjords and mountains. The mundane ordinary existence and undercurrent of social issues which become too big to be fixed. Beauty and the beast of the place firmly fixed within the Bible Belt of Norway and the stunning incredible landscape of powerful and often harsh nature.
Like Staalesen, Veum’s childhood and teenage years were spent in Nordnes peninsula, part of the city close to the well-known tourist landmark UNESCO-listed Bryggen, a series of Hanseatic heritage commercial buildings, yet totally independent from the rest. In the book the area was referred as Republic of Nordnes, and influenced by the early post-war years, still bearing signs of ravages of the WWII. The close-knit communities, sexual awakenings and turf wars. Although these elements are in the past, many memories remain hidden, some are surprises waiting for the ‘right’ moment to emerge. A funeral of a former classmate might be such an event, when unexpectedly Veum joins his other friend Jacob Aasen, ex-guitarist with the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers, now a church organist. The men have not seen each other for more than twenty years. Recollections of childhood days, escapades of adolescence and difficulties of adult life are recurring themes in their conversations which culminate in Jakob asking Veum to find his estranged wife Rebecca. This is not an official job, a favour rather, as Veum realises that their relationship has been problematic over the years. Yet Jacob hopes for Rebecca’s return to the family. What makes is quite sensitive is that she was Veum’s first love. Reminiscences of life that never happened, of missed opportunities make this search both emotionally tricky and poignant.
Apart from this assignment Veum finds himself thrown into the past, through an emotive contemplative and introspective journey through photo album, memories and questions; as well as through the discovery of a horrific recent murder and what he suspects a tragedy going back years.
He feels that something terrible has happened, something that nobody will talk about yet what had consequences akin to the butterfly effect. He suspects that The Harpers’ sudden end to playing and performing in mid 70s must have been connected to a crime. He analyses lives of the band’s members. Arild Hjellestad drank himself to death, Harry Klove died in a traffic accident, and Jan Petter fell off scaffolding at work. When Veum finds in a street a body of the dead Johnny Solheim, the visibly ageing but most prolific and active member of the band, he is first arrested by the police as a suspect. When released from the police station, he begins to consider that three accidental deaths and one stabbing are all murders, part of some twisted plan. Is it revenge? Is it a game? Is it just a series of truly unfortunate incidents in the God’s fearing place?
With confident determined hand and with tenderness and understanding Staalesen steers Varg Veum through ‘childhood is a wound that never heals’ reminiscences, and brutal reality of social issues, horrific experiences of some characters, and vast ocean of his own reflections on life, comprising his parents, tricky relationship with ex-wife, and delicate connection with fifteen-year-old son Tomas. Bergen’s varied music scene and its influences feature strongly, and so does religion and perception of its rigid commandments. The background setting makes the novel alive and pulsating with grief, regret, sorrow, and the fallen misunderstood and abandoned angels. The novel set in 1986 was originally published three years later in Norway but only now is available in English. Don Bartlett, the maestro of Norwegian translation, has worked on several Staalesen’s books and I am confident that their collaboration has been enhanced over the years.
Fallen Angels is both another complex and challenging unofficial investigation by Varg Veum, tinged with sadness and loneliness, and the sensitive portrait of the location, the city and the islands that surround it. A pean to the gone-by era and the influence of the nature and landscape. I particularly enjoyed this paragraph summarising existence from that part of the country:
‘Waiting at ferry terminals is the fate of Vestlanders. No so-journs have left deeper marks in their soul than precisely this. On a wind-blown quay – where there is a hot-dog stall, which is closed, a telephone box where the cable has been yanked out and where the summer ferry timetable is displayed in winter (and vice versa) – lives are shaped. Here, they are on their way out into the world, from home, or on their way home, to weddings or funerals. Here, they accompany their sweethearts to final farewells; here, love-rivals sit in big cars, waiting to take over. Here, they set down their cases and rucksacks, their cardboard boxes of books and photographs, on their way to new life in university towns. Here, they come ashore half drunk after two weeks on the North Sea; here they come home from military service and teacher-training college; here, women arrive with children in their arms and the elderly arrive with walking sticks for their rheumatism after a visit to an urban medical centre. Here, maps are drawn of new paths while old ones are hastily erased. And everyone is waiting for the ferry which is always somewhere in the fjord. Waiting for a ferry is the Vestlander’s lot in life.’
My reviews of the earlier books by Gunnar Staalesen are here: We Shall Inherit the Wind (2015) (Euro Crime pages), Where Roses Never Die (2016) Wolves in the Dark (2017) and Big Sister (2018) (on the Crime Review website).