Extracted from Barry Forshaw’s EURO NOIR (to be published in 2014):
The composer Mahler, forever struggling to get his work recognised, famously prophesied: ‘My time will come.’ And as the Scandinavian crime wave continues to steamroller all before it, one of its most talented practitioners might be forgiven for ruefully echoing Mahler’s words – at least in the UK, where he is shamefully under-regarded. Throughout the rest of Europe, Staalesen is held in the highest esteem; those who know about such matters are well aware that he is every inch the equal of his Nordic confrères Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo (the latter’s judgement, ‘A Norwegian Chandler’, adorns the jacket of this novel), but his sales in Britain at least have remained stubbornly incommensurate with his stellar reputation, and it must rankle for this modern master of the private eye novel to see less talented writers outsell him. But perhaps Cold Hearts (superbly translated by Don Bartlett) will finally elevate Staalesen to the sales pantheon in which he belongs.
Bergen private detective Varg Veum receives a visit from a young prostitute; her friend, Margrethe, has vanished after a terrifying encounter with one of her clients. As the relentlessly tenacious Varg tries to track down the missing girl, the body count escalates (par for the course where he is concerned) and he is to discover corruption at every level of Norwegian society, from its violent subcultures to its moneyed upper middle class.
It was by design that Staalesen chose social work as the earlier career for his sleuth; the notion of damaged psyches resulting from family trauma is a key theme. Of the quartet of Veum books that appeared in the UK in England since At Night All Wolves are Grey in 1986, two – Yours until Death (1993) and The Writing on the Wall (2004) – have featured such issues. Staalesen told me that he felt Scandinavian crime fiction in general – and notably that from Sweden and Norway – has a salutary characteristic: a concentration on socio-political issues woven into the narrative schema, often with a critical anatomising of the less appealing side of Scandinavia’s welfare societies – as in Cold Hearts. Staalesen’s books are among the most distinctive in the crime field, and if you have yet to discover Bergen’s most bloody-minded private eye, Varg Veum, Cold Hearts is the perfect place to start.
Cold Hearts by GUNNAR STAALESEN, translated by Don Bartlett,is published by Arcadia