#BlogTour- Gunnar Staalesen- Wolves At The Door

One dark January night a car drives at high speed towards PI Varg Veum, and comes very close to killing him. Veum is certain this is no accident, following so soon after the deaths of two jailed men who were convicted for their participation in a case of child pornography and sexual assault, crimes that Veum himself once stood wrongly accused of committing. While the guilty men were apparently killed accidentally, Varg suspects that there is something more sinister at play, and that he’s on the death list of someone still at large. Fearing for his life, Veum begins to investigate the old case, interviewing the victims of abuse and delving deeper into the brutal crimes, with shocking results. The wolves are no longer in the dark, they are at his door. And they want vengeance…

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Gunnar Staalesen is singularly the most difficult author I have to review, as his books are just so consistently superb, and beautifully translated by Don Bartlett. To this end, each new instalment of the Varg Veum series just puts an increasing strain on the scope of my vocabulary and my stash of superlatives, so apologies for any noticeable repetition detected of previous reviews for We Shall Inherit The Wind , Where Roses Never Die, Wolves In The Dark, and Big Sister. So now we come to Wolves At The Door, where the shadow of the misdemeanours of Veum’s past, both real and imagined come back to haunt this most tenacious of private investigators in the streets of his beloved Bergen and beyond…

This book is closely linked to the catastrophic events of Wolves In The Dark, but as ever with Staalesen, each of these books can be read in isolation, with the precise, and concise use of back story always contained within the books. Consequently, the reader can quickly get a handle on why Veum is once again under threat, and  the dangerous lengths he needs to go to in order to discover why. As is usual, the slightly gung-ho actions of Veum, also have ramifications for those he is closest too, and places a maybe unbridgeable strain on his most personal relationships. Staalesen always exhibits a sublime skill in his plotting, with a smooth, assured grip on the tension, pace and use of reveals in particular, so we experience the same level of frustration as Veum as his lines of investigation are consistently blurred by a web of lies, deception and interludes of violence.

I thought this plot was exceptionally well realised, bringing to the fore the age old hypothesis of nature vs nurture, the issues of familial dysfunction and how this manifests itself in the victims and survivors of abuse, and is natural justice more warranted in some cases than the grinding wheels of legal justice. Staalesen explores these themes with an intensity and clear sightedness through his conduit Veum, a former social worker illustrating once again, that alongside his innate ability to draw the reader in to an extremely well-structured and compelling thriller, these additional levels of societal and behavioural exploration serves to raise his books above the depressingly familiar norm of thrillers exploring the world of domestic abuse and family conflict.

Aside from Veum being such a vivid, slightly flawed and genuinely likeable character, with his tenacious attitude, his companionable relationship with aquavit, and his sometimes foolhardy denial of not being the spring chicken he was, these books always appeal to my own love of language and taut dialogue. I have never reached the end of one of Staalesen’s books without noting down several pages containing sharp and snappy exchanges, or just brilliant punchy little observations such as “On the way up to the house I passed a thawing snowman bent at the hip, an arthritic terpsichorean,” Staalesen has an elasticity of phrase, and what I perceive to be a general love of, and skill for, honing his language to compress a visual panorama into a pared down image, or short, taut description which reveals so much to the reader by saying relatively little. I also get a large amount of enjoyment from Veum’s perfectly delivered cynical asides in the face of other people’s stupidity- an admirable quality that dissipates the general irritation that the sometimes crotchety Veum experiences pretty much every day in his interactions with pretty much everybody. There are exceptions to this rule of course revealing an assuring soft-centeredness to him, which then quickly dissipates yet again, bringing a welcome return to cynicism and irritation as the idiots raise their ugly heads again.   

So, once again, Wolves At The Door accrues a five star rating for a five star book from a five star author, and a five star translator Don Bartlett. There is little more to say, apart from a personal note to Gunnar Staalesen in the light of the ending this book, you might want to rethink the beekeeping idea for both Veum’s sanity and ours…

Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour Helga Flatland- A Modern Family

When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history…

A slight diversion from my normal crime fare in the shape of this one, A Modern Family from Helga Flatland, dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler. The machinations of family life has been a rich seam for Scandinavian fiction and film for many years, instantly bringing to mind Festen and the Danish TV series The Legacy, both structured around the pressure points that arise, and relationships that become strained in families. Although the events of Flatland are probably less driven by greed and competitiveness, Flatland constructs a story that really delves beneath the veneer of this particular family, and the seismic implications of an unexpected announcement…

I think it’s fair to say that this is a book driven by character, as this nuclear family of mother and father, their two daughters, Liv and Ellen and their son, Hakon, their respective partners, and their children are put so much under the microscope, after the announcement that their parents, in their twilight years, are seeking a divorce. What Flatland does is raise this book above a rather humdrum premise, to an incisive and probing exploration of family life; what makes them tick, the underlying alliances, the individual members’ weaknesses, strengths and their own personal issues. Speaking from the viewpoint of an only child from a small family, I found this particularly interesting, never having to navigate the general stresses that this particular family seem to have in droves!

As the story unfolds between the split narratives of Liv, Ellen and Hakon, we not only bear witness to their own assimilation of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but also a detailed insight into their own lives with issues of infertility, marital strain, fear of commitment and so on, swirling around the central motif of the unsettling effect of their parents’ break up. Flatland also pays particular attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship between Liv, Ellen and Hakon themselves, as in the wake of their parents proceeding boldly on the course of their new lives untethered to each other, it seems that their children find the whole scenario just a tad more difficult to cope with themselves. In fact, as the story progresses my admiration for their parents’ growing fearless attitude was one of the highlights of the book. As Liv and Ellen get sucked into a increasingly gloomy narrative arising from the emotional fissures in their lives, and Hakon, who comes across as a teenager in adult clothing, seems entirely confused by how the whole world of relationships works, it serves to put them on a different emotional plain entirely to their increasingly stoical and pragmatic parents.

Although A Modern Family obviously has its foundations firmly rooted in this family unit, Flatland also punctuates the book with some interesting observations on a whole array of subjects from publishing to politics, from green issues to female equality, some of which brought a wry smile to this reader, as the characters mount their soapboxes and let fly with their observations. I think this is done extremely well, rooting the reader in a fixed space and time in the characters’ lives, but also adhering to the Scandinavian reputation, both in fiction and crime, of giving their readers a broader and balanced view of the world against which their narratives play out, and I enjoyed Flatland’s realisation of this very much. I will confess that this is not normally the type of book I would naturally seek out, but I did enjoy this modern saga of a family in a period of change, crisis and renewal, and the points of stress, high emotion and the process of acceptance that Flatland explores within her characters. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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Blog Tour- Thomas Enger- Killed

Determined to find his son’s killer, Henning doggedly follows an increasingly dangerous trail, where dark hands from the past emerge to threaten everything. His ex-wife Nora is pregnant with another man’s child, his sister Trine is implicated in the fire that killed his son and, with everyone he thought he could trust seemingly hiding something, Henning has nothing to lose … except his own life…

So we’ve been  Burned, Pierced Scarred and Cursed so now prepare to be Killed by the last instalment in Thomas Enger’s superlative Henning Juul series. A reading experience of mixed pleasures it has to be said, with the excitement of a new book by Enger, but equally a tinge of sadness that this appears to be where we and Henning Juul go our separate ways…

Not afraid to repeat myself, as I have reviewed every book to date, I would once again draw your attention to Enger’s consistently polished storytelling, and ability to really bring his character’s traits- both weak and strong, good or bad- straight into the reader’s consciousness. Having concealed and revealed various people’s involvement in the tragic fire that resulted in the death of Juul’s son, this book again throws some curveballs Juul’s way, and Enger seems to delight in raising our suspicions, and then deflating our theories as Juul doggedly continues to pursue the truth. I think this book also fulfils a fair quota of the Tertullian seven deadly sins, as there is more than enough greed, murder, fraud and false witness to go round. Balanced with this, there is also a subtly nuanced depiction of the softer and vulnerable side of some of the characters, that toys with our perception of them, and at times invokes in us an equally subtle shift in our sympathy for them. I think this is why I have enjoyed Enger’s series so much, as in far as it is steeped in the recognisable tropes of much Scandinavian crime fiction, there is another arc to his writing that is sensitive and emotive, and really allows the reader to connect beyond the superficial narrative of an ordinary thriller. I also enjoyed the switching between two locations, the contrasts that Enger draws between the European and South American temperaments, and their differing attitudes to life, wealth, and justice.

This is one of the few series that I think works better by starting from the first and reading sequentially. As much as you can join in with the trials and travails of Juul in Killed , there is a gripping and layered back story waiting to be discovered, and with the accrued knowledge of events from the previous instalments, it definitely heightens the enjoyment of this final book. Having followed Juul’s story for some time, I felt it was time that this poor man achieved some sense of closure, and it has to be said that this book brings many chickens home to roost, with the obligatory dishing out of physical violence that Juul seems to attract. In the light of what I have just said about reading the series in its entirety, I have rather boxed myself into a corner, as to how much more I can tell you, and my lips are firmly sealed. Just keep that chilling prologue in the back of your mind as the story weaves to its conclusion…

As the curtain is drawn down on the ballad of Henning Juul, I am curious to see what Enger will produce next, and what the liberty of finishing this series will spark in his imagination. This has been an exemplary series, and well worth reading all five books. So after being Burned, Pierced Scarred  Cursed and Killed, I am now sated too.

Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Gunnar Staalesen-Wolves In The Dark

Reeling from the death of his great love, Karin, Varg Veum’s life has descended into a self-destructive spiral of alcohol, lust, grief and blackouts. When traces of child pornography are found on his computer, he’s accused of being part of a paedophile ring and thrown into a prison cell. There, he struggles to sift through his past to work out who is responsible for planting the material,  and who is seeking the ultimate revenge. When a chance to escape presents itself, Varg finds himself on the run in his hometown of Bergen. With the clock ticking and the police on his tail, Varg takes on his hardest – and most personal – case yet…

And so, it is time once again for Gunnar Staalesen to put his redoubtable private detective, Varg Veum,  through an emotional wringer, and visit all kinds of hell upon him in his most personally harrowing investigation yet. Merely further confirming his pedigree as one of the finest Scandinavian crime fiction writers of the modern age, Wolves In The Dark, is among Staalesen’s darkest, and most finely crafted, novels to date…

What is to be most admired about this latest addition to the series, is the complexity of the plotting, which absolutely captures and illustrates the maelstrom of confusion and grief that has defined Veum’s life over a significant period of time. The narrative continually reaches back into Veum’s descent into alcoholism and blackouts following the death of his beloved Karin, and as Veum seeks to piece together events and actions from this dark time in his personal life, Staalesen  plays with the themes of memory, and morality in equal measure. Attention must be paid as the storyline ebbs and flows between the past and present, and small moments of clarity begin to punctuate Veum’s memory of recent events. I would certainly recommended reading in larger sections, as the previous investigations that may go some way to explain Veum’s current dilemma are so important in the overall story arc, and it’s easy to lose track of the pertinent details in shorter sittings.

I thought the depiction of this swirling miasma of confusion and truth seeking that Veum has to endure was superbly done, and cleverly invites the reader in as a second pair of eyes, as Veum seeks to reconcile his memory of events with the very dark accusations against him. I also appreciated the way that Staalesen treats the subject of grief, harnessing and examining Veum’s despair through his actions,  and by extension drawing on the reader’s empathy throughout. The astute combination of plotting and characterisation is exceptionally well-crafted, and as Veum is pushed to the limits of his self-awareness and morality, Staalesen weaves a tale that is by turn disturbing, and emotive. Not only is Veum accused of such a distasteful crime, but Staalesen artfully balances Veum’s own moral self examination, with those of his investigators, and those that seek to help, and defend him. In the face of adversity Veum takes extreme action to defend his reputation, but the immoral taint of accusation is a difficult one to be cleansed of. By using the theme of cybercrime, and particularly Veum’s general naivety of the pernicious reach of this offence, Staalesen exposes a dangerous world lacking human morality, and decency, and Veum is continually portrayed as a man adrift, thwarting his quest for truth further…

Wolves In The Dark has to rank as one of my favourite books in the series to date, immersing Varg Veum in a real personal trauma , which dents his natural humour and bonhomie, and causes him to question and reassess an incredibly dark period of his history, barely functioning under the weight of grief. The book is infinitely more downbeat than Staalesen’s usual fare, but interestingly plays with the themes of grief, recollection, guilt and morality through Veum himself, and those central to the previous cases that become integral in the search to clear his name. Thoughtful, introspective, and, as usual, completely absorbing. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Kjell Ola Dahl- Faithless

Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back and this time, it’s personal… When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her, and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he ponders the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda investigates a disturbingly similar cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway and Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again…

I don’t think I’m too wrong in my opinion that the reason we love our Scandinavian crime fiction is its aura of unrelenting darkness, be it literally or metaphorically. Kjell Ola Dahl (author The Fourth Man, The Man in the Window, The Last Fix, and Lethal Investments) has been a long time favourite of mine, simply because he has a penchant for wholly embracing this psychological blackness, and taking his readers to some very dark places indeed…

Series regular detective Frank Frolich finds himself immersed in two difficult cases, with one of them being personally too close for comfort.  Embracing both investigations in his normal resilient, but nevertheless emotionally intense style, Dahl uses Frohlich to expose a visceral tale of drugs, sexual exploitation, and the testing of the bonds of family and friendship. Although the product of a Norwegian writer, Frohlich, always reminds me of Arnaldur Indradason’s tortured detective Erlendur, whose black psyche so consumes the reader.  Frohlich always has the tendency to be on the brink of his life unravelling around him, and in Faithless, Dahl takes great delight in using him as a doomed marionette like figure, thwarted in love, betrayed in friendship, and driven to the utmost extreme of behaviour, which cannot help but have serious ramifications. Prepare for some serious sharp intakes of breath as the book progresses.

In common with the depiction of Frohlich, Dahl’s characterisation of police and criminal alike is always flawless. There is a wonderful sense to his characters that none are wholly good or wholly bad, and I like the way that most of the characters exhibit at least one component of the seven deadly sins. His police protagonists range display a wide range of characteristics from the straight-laced and po-faced, to the loud and boorish, to the sexually confused, giving the reader much to chew on before Dahl even starts to deal with the criminal fraternity, or those suspected of heinous deeds. The idiosyncrasies and inherent madness of the society and criminals they investigate is embraced in their natural cynicism, and the ways they depressurise from their unrelenting nastiness of their day job. Dahl seems to wholeheartedly embrace the notion of life’s rich tapestry when drawing his characters and their personal foibles, which toys significantly with the reader’s empathies, and plays with our notions of natural justice,  and the acceptable degrees of guilt and punishment.

Once again, the book is flawlessly plotted, with a beautifully nuanced translation by Don Bartlett ( a Raven favourite due to his wonderful translations of Per Petterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard) which strikes exactly the right chord throughout. With the Scandinavian crime market positively bursting at the seams, the quality of its runners and riders is becoming more obvious with a greater pool of authors to choose from. Dahl firmly remains one of the front runners for this reader, and if you haven’t read him before, start right here. Highly recommended.

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#BlogTour- Thomas Enger- Cursed

515ppmic7ol-_sx324_bo1204203200_What secret would you kill to protect? When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history…

So we’ve been  Burned, Pierced  and  Scarred  so now prepare to be Cursed by the latest instalment in Thomas Enger’s superlative Henning Juul series. Focussing on our dogged, emotionally and physically damaged reporter, Juul, Enger has carved out an exceptional niche in the current Scandinavian crime fiction market. Juul is still endeavouring to find those responsible for the fire which led to the death of his young son, and the physical injuries to himself. This continues to lead him to some  dark places, and into the crosshairs of some very dangerous people indeed. Coupled with this are the concerns raised by his changing relationship with his ex-wife, and fellow journalist, Nora and her involvement in a missing persons case at great danger to herself, which sees both their investigations become inextricably linked.

Hennning Juul himself, is a compelling character, in whom Enger balances an equal amount of empathy and exasperation on the part of the reader. We can sit back and admire his dogged determination to avenge himself on his son’s killers, and his integrity and professionalism as a reporter. However, I am increasingly struck by the fact that Juul never gives himself an emotional break, and lives his life in a constant state of maudlin despair. He is understandably grieving for the loss of his child and seeking emotional closure for this, but is in a state of denial that Nora will return to his warm embrace, particularly as she is now involved with another man. Indeed, I fear that such is his closed off state that he will fail to feel a warm embrace from any quarter. Like Enger’s assured characterisation of Juul’s estranged sister Trine in previous books, Nora is a well formed and believable character. Torn between two lovers as it were, and not without personal flaws, she possesses  a steely glint in her eye when it comes to uncovering the events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of her former friend. She has an equanimity of character that allows her to drift between different social worlds, nagging away at the truth, although there is one exceptionally foolhardy action she takes that had me sighing in despair, the only kink in an otherwise perfect narrative.

Having favourably reviewed Enger’s previous three books, I am always struck with the control of pace and plot that is a standout feature of his writing. There is a real feel of storytelling in its purest form, and his books are always plainly delineated into a balanced beginning, middle and end, so consequently the reader is quickly drawn into the storyline, and carried along at a smooth and satisfying pace to the final denouement. There is always an element of surprise and wrongfooting in Enger’s plots, and a feeling of darkness as to what leads people to act and think in such malignant ways, played out against Enger’s pitch perfect use of socio-historical detail. I will issue my normal proviso that even if you are joining this series at this later point, Enger roundly and concisely brings the reader up to speed with previous events in Juul’s tortured personal history. Being a bit  fly by night, and sometimes a sporadic follower of series, I have been totally consistent with Enger’s series to date, and by working a little bit of teasing magic at the very close of this one, I’m pretty darn sure that the next one will be a bit of a must read too. All in all another fine example of engaging Scandinavian crime fiction that ticks all the boxes for this reader. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Gunnar Staalesen- Where Roses Never Die – Review

gunnarGunnar Staalesen is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest Scandinavian crime fiction writers of the modern age, so it’s an absolute pleasure to be involved in this blog tour, marking the release of the latest in his Varg Veum series, Where Roses Never Die

September 1977. Mette Misvaer, a three-year-old girl disappears without trace from the sandpit outside her home. Her tiny, close middle-class community in the tranquil suburb of Nordas is devastated, but their enquiries and the police produce nothing. Curtains twitch, suspicions are raised, but Mette is never found. Almost 25 years later, as the expiry date for the statute of limitations draws near, Mette’s mother approaches PI Varg Veum, in a last, desperate attempt to find out what happened to her daughter. As Veum starts to dig, he uncovers an intricate web of secrets, lies and shocking events that have been methodically concealed. When another brutal incident takes place, a pattern begins to emerge…

Averse as I am to gushing, with some authors it’s difficult to remain completely objective when you have genuinely loved every single book that they have ever produced. Such is my problem- but a nice problem- with the venerable Mr Staalesen, and Where Roses Never Die, which merely compounds my adoration of this series to date.

As there is a deliciously dark twist in this book, I will not tarry long on the plot, but needless to say Staalesen once again employs his tactic of making the reader believe that what they are witnessing is a fairly simple investigation, in this case possible child abduction/murder and a jewellery store robbery. But nothing so straightforward my friends. Staalesen has a wonderful way of calmly exposing a very nasty underbelly to Veum’s investigation that will both unsettle and disturb you, all through a measured unfolding of Veum’s probing discoveries, and the exposure of his protagonist’s true nature and motivations. As you think that the investigation is going steadily in one direction, a follow up interview or a loose casual remark uncovers another dark thread for Veum to follow, and the innocent are not always as innocent as we believe. Staalesen’s plotting is consistently faultless and this book proves no exception. Question everything you think you know, and don’t be fooled, there are some rum characters in this one.

Staalesen is incredibly good at exposing the kinks in the psychological make-up and behaviour throughout his characterisation, from his dogged and haunted PI Veum , through the layers of deceit and misdirection that the surrounding cast of characters exhibit as he searches for truth and resolution. Veum is such a non-linear, unpredictable character and cleverly, the familiarity we think we have with him as readers is effectively warped in each book, as Staalesen seems to re-assess and redraw him slightly in each investigation, exposing different facets of the man both personally and professionally. The natural cynical humour, and determination to unsettle and irritate some of those he encounters remains a constant though, and I love the way that Staalesen extends this feature of Veum’s character to poke affectionate fun at the locale of Bergen and its inhabitants too. On a more serious note though, it is good to see Veum starting to recover from a significant loss in his life, and making a few tentative steps back to the realm of personal relationships, leaving the door open a gap for this emotional recovery to continue in the next book.

Once again, Staalesen has produced another impeccable slice of Nordic noir, that places him at the forefront of the Scandinavian crime writing community. With immaculate and controlled plotting, which throws up a number of dark surprises along the way to nicely unsettle the reader, and the engaging figure of Varg Veum at its centre, Where Roses Never Die is a more than satisfying addition to this excellent series. Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Roses Never Die Blog tour- use this one