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Varg Veum is a former social worker turned private detective in Bergen, Norway. His enquiries into the disappearance of a fifteen year old girl unearth a thriving teenage prostitution scene in the city and, Varg is convinced, indicate a connection with the death in mysterious circumstances of a prominent male judge found in a hotel room wearing womens underwear. Before long, Varg finds himself deep within the seedy underbelly of Bergens criminal world.
Purely in terms of its rating as a detective novel, The Writing on the Wall is little more than average; in Veum, Gunnar Staalesen has created a fairly engaging and believable hero but one that I could imagine might irritate some readers. This former social worker just cant quite shake off his past and continually repeats the need to protect children either to spur himself on or to persuade others to be on his side. He also differs from the conventional lone-working private detective in that he holds down a stable relationship and doesnt seem to have any of the personality defects often attributed to private detectives in novels at least none which make themselves apparent in this novel; he doesn't have a drink problem, doesn't have problems with authority - he doesn't really fit the bill!
What makes The Writing on the Wall stand out is the authors ability to paint an evocative picture of wintry Bergen which sits well with the dark nature of the story and some of the more suspect characters. Unfortunately I think this went a little too far; it seemed at times like the book had been written with the idea in the back of the authors mind that it would be translated into other languages and so became a written lesson on Norwegian physical geography. Put simply, I often was not sure whether the author was using allusions to fjords and glaciers because he really thought them appropriate or as a cheap gimmick to make the book more Norwegian. Whatever the answer, Staalesen does conjure up an atmospheric picture of a cruel and brooding landscape that is very striking.
Following on from this it is noted that Varg translates as wolf which leads to several puns throughout the book; this is mentioned in the translation but somehow it jarred. I think this meant that the spotaneity of the humour is lost in translation because you don't immediately understand why some characters react the way they do when they hear his name for the first time.
I also quite liked the way Staalesen managed to work in details about contemporary Norwegian life the class system, how people live, how they work, the role of the media; it showed not only an eye to detail but illuminated the characters and really brought them to life. Staalesen has a way with dialogue and this forms a significant part of the narration, providing a healthy balance between dialogue and prose.
If you are a fan of the genre, The Writing on the Wall shouldnt present too much of a challenge; there are no major turns and not a great deal of suspense. It is Vargs thought processes that solve the mysteries and since the narration is from his perspective, the reader follows the plot alongside him. No action takes place without his being there so the reader has only the same evidence to work on.
Another disappointment was the contuinual threeat of danger but the subsequent failure to deliver anything even nearly thrilling. Don't get me wrong - I did not want to see our hero meet a sticky end but I never really felt he was in danger - and not because he was equal to the baddies either!
Before picking up this book I had never heard of Gunnar Staalesen, though I now know that he has been a fairly prolific author of crime fiction since the nineteen seventies. I probably will read more of his work if I see it but wouldnt make a special purchase. I am not convinced that Varg Veum is interesting or engaging enough to hold my interest for more than a few novels, nor his cases intriguing and challenging enough for that matter. This wolf is almost toothless and certainly not one to be afraid of.
Published by Arcadia - 256 pages
In this crime drama detective Varg Veum's adventures lead him to a dark world of privileged, young teenage girls who have been drawn into drugs and prostitution. The situation worsens when the local judge is discovered in a luxury hotel, dead and clad only in women's lingerie. Called in by anxious parents and officials to look for a missing daughter and explain the judge's death, Varg finds clues that lead him only deeper into the city's criminal underworld.