When I reviewed Gunnar Staalesen’s Cold Hearts three years ago, I responded to the blurb by Jo Nesbo calling Staalesen a ‘Norwegian Chandler’ and suggested he might better be seen as a Norwegian Ross MacDonald, though I thought his character was a bit more of a blank slate than Lew Archer’s. Where Roses Never Die reinforced my idea, but it’s more effective than Cold Hearts precisely because its detective Varg Veum fills in a lot more of that seemingly blank slate.

Staalesen’s work is actually a bit more Noir than almost all of what is sweepingly called Nordic Noir, primarily for its moments when Veum deals with his drinking problems, and when his typically Nordic depressive detective moves through what is a great setting for a mystery: an architect designed group of houses facing in on each other, a metaphor for the people who live there and indeed for the crime Veum is hired to investigate.

Maja Misvaer hires Veum to investigate the disappearance of her three-year old daughter from a sandbox outside her home some twenty-five years earlier. The statute of limitations is about to expire, which means the police will formally close the case, and she wants Veum to take one last look. Veum rouses himself from his own grief and his alcoholic stupor, and begins asking questions and turning over rocks and discovering connections which go back far into the past, and which merge into another case, a robbery of a jewellery store in Bergen a few years earlier.

This is very much like MacDonald at his best: buried secrets come to the surface, the past haunts the present, and Veum, who was a social worker before becoming a detective, seems to take a high moral view which implies the consequences small break downs in personal morality can have.

Bergen is a strange setting, and not necessarily a very noirish one, but Veum moves among its lowlife and shows us the underbelly even in a small relatively prosperous town in a social democracy welfare state. This goes back to the very start of the great Scandinavian detectives, and Staalesen works very comfortably within it. There are moments which sometimes stretch credibility, of coincidence and of violence, but there are also a number of moments that are moving, and the story underneath unveils itself with a few surprises. Staalesen remains relatively unknown and hugely undervalued here; he deserves more attention.

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

translated by Don Bartlett

Orenda Books, £8.99 ISBN 9781910633090

NOTE: This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets. Find more crime reviews, essays, and observations at http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com

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