#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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Helen Fitzgerald- Worst Case Scenario

Mary Shields is a moody, acerbic probation offer, dealing with some of Glasgow’s worst cases, and her job is on the line. Liam Macdowall was imprisoned for murdering his wife, and he’s published a series of letters to the dead woman, in a book that makes him an unlikely hero – and a poster boy for Men’s Rights activists.

Liam is released on licence into Mary’s care, but things are far from simple. Mary develops a poisonous obsession with Liam and his world, and when her son and Liam’s daughter form a relationship, Mary will stop at nothing to impose her own brand of justice with devastating consequences…

I don’t know about any other bookseller but I am just waiting for the day when someone says, “You wouldn’t by any chance have any books where Irvine Welsh is channelled through the madcap world of a slightly unhinged menopausal woman would you?” To which I could triumphantly declare that yes, I have the very thing. Having read and reviewed Helen Fitzgerald’s books before, I think it really is fair to say that there are few contemporary writers that display the natural versatility and scope that she so confidently displays from book to book. For this reason alone, her books are unerringly readable, and as she turns her acerbic and probing gaze on, in this case, a woman under extreme pressure for a whole variety of reasons, you are never quite sure where she is going to take you…

Throughout Worst Case Scenario we become fully immersed in the world of Mary, an ageing criminal-justice social worker, grappling with a host of unpleasant clients, the daily struggle with petty bureaucracy, an over-reliance on illegal, and legal stimulants, and the nefarious onset of intense menopausal symptoms. Oh, and her perceived involvement in the suicide of one of her clients, an entanglement with the #MeToo movement, and attracting the hatred of pretty much every ‘cuckolded’ man the length and breadth of the nation. All told there’s quite a lot going on in Mary’s life, which becomes increasingly difficult with her son’s involvement with the daughter of said suicide victim, and the growing strain on her relationship with her husband Roddie. It’s all here: misogyny, misandry, perversion, hot flashes, and a pervading feel at times of a woman drowning, not waving.

As totally unhinged as this all sounds, Fitzgerald absolutely takes the reader through this strange and almost hallucinogenic world, where depravity and constant self doubt plague Mary’s life, but where Mary meets each challenge with all the subtlety of a blunt instrument, and with all the tact of the aforementioned too. She is a real force of nature, and despite her numerous flaws and the frustration she arouses in the reader, I liked her very much. Would I want her job? No. Would I want her ballsiness? Absolutely.

I’ve never had cause to refer to Greek mythology in a review before, but there’s a first time for everything, but Fitzgerald really does summon up the Muses of comedy, Thalia  and tragedy, Melpomene  in this book. Cut through with dark humour, moments of excruciating discomfort, Fitzgerald balances her razor-sharp comic touch, with moments of extreme pathos and heartbreak, carefully harnessing the incidences of psycho-drama with the inherent need for the pace and suspense of any compelling psychological thriller. Taking a diversion from Greek mythology to the film Jumpin’ Jack Flash (yeah, stay with me), Whoopi Goldberg declares that she has the face of a woman on the edge, and that’s how I saw Mary, and I loved her all the more for it.

Worst Case Scenario is one of Fitzgerald’s best books to date, in its relevancy and very unique spin on a whole host of social, criminal and women’s issues. Would absolutely recommend this one…

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