PI Varg Veum has returned to duty following a stint in rehab, but his new composure and resolution are soon threatened when a challenging assignment arrives on his desk. A man is found dead in an elite swimming pool and a young woman has gone missing. Most chillingly, Varg Veum is asked to investigate the ‘Camilla Case’: an eight-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of a little girl, who was never found. As the threads of these apparently unrelated crimes come together, against the backdrop of a series of shocking environmental crimes, Varg Veum faces the most challenging, traumatic investigation of his career…
The irascible, world weary private investigator Varg Veum returns, post rehab, although not necessarily completely rejuvenated, and is drawn into a trio of tricky cases, that may or may not be connected by nefarious threads. This is classic Gunnar Staalesen, and to my mind one of the best of the series to date…
If ever Staalesen’s wholly deserved comparison with the great Raymond Chandler needed to be justified further, Bitter Flowers is the book to turn to. For some reason, I was channelling The Big Sleep right the way through the book, with the rich, secret ridden and not entirely likeable Schroeder-Olsen family at its centre, making their fortune not on the oilfields of California past, but harvesting and dispersing toxic waste on the beautiful Norwegian landscape. The wheelchair bound patriarch, reminiscent of old man Sternwood in Chandler’s classic, and the strong floral motif encapsulated in the character of the damaged young daughter Siv Schroeder-Olsen, also reminding me of the opening to The Big Sleep. The family are complex in terms of their relationships with each other, with a degree of avarice, envy and murderous intent at its very core, and the differing representations of themselves that they present to both the outside world, and to Veum himself as he digs deeper into the heart of their familial loyalty and treacherous disloyalty.
Once again, Staalesen demonstrates his superior, and always authoritative plotting carefully intertwining the three cases that Veum becomes embroiled in, leading to a clever interlinking of the three and the part that this family plays in all of them. Along the way, we see Veum’s growing affinity with the daughter Siv, a true innocent, and how this impacts on his determination to bring some justice and resolution. As the level of dishonesty and destructive sense of self-preservation that this family imbue becomes more apparent, Veum’s steely determination to expose their sins drives him on relentlessly. As usual, Staalesen brings the reader along effortlessly, as through Veum we uncover the clues and form our own theories as to the guilty parties and what has driven them to behave in certain ways. It’s always enjoyable to play along with the investigation in this way, and that’s what makes these books so singularly enjoyable every time.
And what of the indomitable Veum himself, following his period of rehabilitation? Well, he’s lost none of his intuitive and dogged nature, and despite the demons that haunt him, and at times rise to the surface again in the course of this investigation, he is still a man you would want on your side in times of trouble. He has a ferocity of spirit, cleverly masked by the laconic and cynical front he presents to the world, that leads to a stubborn intent to see his cases solved, and justice attained, that is wholly admirable. His methods may be questionable at times, but it definitely all adds to his charm.
Bitter Flowers is, as always a masterclass in plotting , pace and characterisation, carefully weaving in themes and tropes that strike home with the contemporary reader, although the books are set some distance in the past. However, the themes of betrayal and criminality are timeless, and nothing beats a good, slightly old-fashioned private investigator whittling away at a seemingly unsolvable case or three, and Varg Veum is a classic example of this. The translation by Don Bartlett is as accomplished as ever, sharing the tenor of Staalesen’s voice and humour so beautifully. Much as I hate to repeat myself, this one can only be classed as highly recommended. Bring on the next…
Don Bartlett completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in 2000 and has since worked with a wide variety of Danish and Norwegian authors, including Jo Nesbø and Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum series: We Shall Inherit the Wind, Wolves in the Dark and the Petrona award-winning Where Roses Never Die. He also translated Faithless, the previous book in Kjell Ola Dahl’s Oslo Detective series for Orenda Books.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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