Written by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett — Little known fact: there is a statue of Gunnar Staalesen’s private detective character Varg Veum in the author’s home town of Bergen, Norway. We can begin to appreciate why with the translation of the 14th instalment of the series into English. It’s the sixth one to come out in English, but the books have been hugely popular in Norwegian, German and Swedish and there are 16 of them in total.
Varg (Norwegian for wolf) is a private detective, which is rather unusual in Scandinavian crime fiction. His cases aren’t so procedural, either. Instead we experience the travails of a dedicated in-your-face gumshoe who just doesn’t know when to quit. Varg is a hardboiled protagonist but with a decidedly sensitive side, who tells his story in the first person a little bit like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. We Shall Inherit the Wind opens with an achingly poignant scene where he is tending his fiancée Karin at her hospital bedside. She is near death and he blames himself. Alongside Varg, we go back and find out why…
Varg is asked by Karin to help her friend Ranveig. Successful businessman Mons Maeland, Ranveig’s husband, has disappeared. When they rendezvous for the interview, Varg finds her in a charming summer house by the sea with a family friend, Brekkhus, who is a former cop. Coincidentally, Brekkhus previously investigated the disappearance of Maeland’s first wife Lea, who vanished 17 years earlier at the very same site and was never found. Varg agrees to take the case, but senses he’s not getting the whole story from Ranveig and Brekkhus, whose role is unclear. As he investigates further and talks to Lea’s children he learns they have no love for Ranveig, who hooked up with their father a little too soon after their mother’s disappearance, which was unofficially written off as a suicide by sea.
Mon’s disappearance coincides with his sudden change of heart on his company’s plans to develop wind turbines on a pristine coastal island. The wind farm is at the center of a war between environmental activists and big business, and Maeland’s son and daughter are on opposing sides. When Varg follows this line of inquiry it leads him to Ole Rørdal, the local eco-warrior who publicly condemns the plan at every opportunity. As the company prepares to survey the site, the sleepy island becomes the centre of a standoff between the activists and the suits. It turns out their are factions within the environmentalists who disagree on the best way to oppose the wind farm. On the island, Varg meets all the players, including the proprietor of the local hotel, who is Ole’s mother, and her Christian fundamentalist husband. Varg is most curious, however, about a giant, ham-fisted goon who has been hanging around.
One of the more radical activists, Svenson, disappears and is eventually found beaten and tied up nearby. But that’s nothing compared to the graphic tableau that follows: Mons, the indecisive figure on the fence between the warring factions around the proposed wind farm, is found crucified on the building site. When Svenson himself is killed in a botched act of terrorism, the story’s pace really kicks off. In Staalesen’s deft yet unhurried style, numerous plot threads are interwoven around the kernel of suspense established in the beginning: how Varg’s fiancée came to be harmed.
No longer charged with finding Mons, Varg continues to probe. Personal betrayals, shady deals and the true motives of the vying parties are laid bare in the suspenseful final confrontation we’ve been waiting for, with Veum in the thick of it. This masterful first-person narrative is very much character-driven, as Varg’s tenacious personality drives his destiny and the events that lead up to the surprise-laden finale. We look forward to more translations of this series.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars