Blog Tour- Gunnar Staalesen- Big Sister

Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office. A woman introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a 19-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.
Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers on the hunt for a group of people whose dark deeds are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Just when you thought that wily private investigator Varg Veum’s personal life couldn’t get any more complicated, Staalesen illustrates once again his ability to stretch his character to almost breaking point. Grappling with ghosts of the past, and a particularly emotional and troublesome missing person case, Veum is tested to the limit in the course of this all too personal investigation…

It goes without saying that Staalesen consistently produces crime thrillers to the highest standard, and considering how many books have featured the mercurial Varg Veum it is a remarkable achievement to keep a main protagonist so fresh and interesting after so many encounters. And yet this is what Staalesen does, and Big Sister is no exception. From the nod to Chandler in the title of the book itself, Staalesen once again engages us completely with Veum in his now trademark drily witty and hardboiled style. It’s almost as if Staalesen treats Veum as a metaphorical onion, peeling back layer after layer to reveal other aspects of Veum’s character, and unerringly placing him in difficult physical and emotional situations, which are all the more entertaining for us. I think the thing I enjoy most though is the very palpable sense of Veum getting older, and how he reacts differently to situations he’s placed in, as opposed to his younger self, whilst retaining that slightly gung-ho impetuousness and then realising his physical limitations as an older man. The deadpan humour, and cynical world view are in evidence as normal, but Staalesen tempers this beautifully with Veum’s realisation that his life to this point has not been all that it appears, and weighs him down beautifully as to how far he should pursue the truth of his family history. I loved the unfolding of this particular part of the plot, as Veum tries to reconcile his own character with what he knows of where his true parentage lies, and his sudden inclusion in a family and community as the truth of the past is revealed. Staalesen handles this arc of the story sensitively, and fully conveys the emotional confusion that Veum experiences, whilst tempering it to perfection with Veum’s naturally stoical personality.

In the main plot of the missing person investigation, Staalesen again weaves a complex connectivity between Veum and those he encounters, as they seek to evade and conceal their involvement with the victim. This book again takes us to some very dark places dealing with weighty issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, organised crime and addiction, and as always Veum’s gritty determination to solve the case, leads him and those closest to him into physical danger. I always enjoy Veum’s interactions with those he questions, chipping away at them until they either give up what the know, or punch him on the nose. Staalesen’s fluid dialogue, so resonant of the hardboiled masters, is here in spades, and complimented by a twisting and testing plot,  and with no exceedingly obvious guilty party there was, as always, much to enjoy here. With pithy references to the ills of contemporary society, the habitual strong sense of place, and a beautifully weighted translation again by Don Bartlett,  Big Sister is a brilliant addition to one of the most consistent and enjoyable European crime thriller series. Just what will Staalesen put Veum through next I wonder…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Agnes Ravatn- The Bird Tribunal

9781910633359TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough…

Aside from my fixation on crime fiction, my other reading pleasure comes from the lure of bijou contemporary fiction in translation, so was pretty sure that Agnes Ravatn’s compact Norwegian thriller would tick many boxes…

From the outset we are completely immersed in the suffocating claustrophobia and changes of tension that exist in the relationship between Allis Hagtorn and her new employer, the mercurial and distant Sigurd Bagge. Almost instantly I was reminded of one of my favourite books, Embers by Sandor Marai, that is built on the discourse between two characters, and the revelations from the past that come to light. To sustain the reader’s interest with such a compressed cast of characters is always a difficult task, and having read other books that have spectacularly failed in this respect, Ravatn stood tall. Using the dual protagonist structure, with only the intermittent appearance of a local shopkeeper, the reader is anchored firmly in the lives of both Allis and Sigurd, and witness to the unfolding details and changing parameters of their relationship, as if viewing them on a stage with the reader as the single audience member. It’s beautifully done.

As Ravatn slowly reveals the emotionally charged and turbulent details of both character’s back stories, where we are, in common with Allis, slightly on the back foot, she weaves a story laden with myth, guilt and undulating emotions. By incorporating the essence of myth, and the consistent references to the changeability of nature, our sense of reality is manipulated, and sometimes the writing attains a dreamlike quality, affecting our perception of Allis and Sigurd and their true natures and intentions. In common with Patricia Highsmith, and early Ruth Rendell, Ravatn ramps up the psychological tension and underlying menace, and I liked the allusion to another seminal work of English fiction, which would act as too much of a spoiler if I was to mention it here. The writing, and the dialogue, in particular is clipped and measured, and every sentence seems to exist under the weight of precise authorial intention. No word or image is wasted.

When you encounter a book like this with its unique intensity, it does return to your thoughts now and again. That to me is a sign of a good book and The Bird Tribunal more than fits the description. It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between. Not forgetting the flawless translation by Rosie Hedger too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda for the ARC)

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