Written by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett — It’s been three years since Bergen PI Varg Veum tragically lost his girlfriend in We Shall Inherit the Wind. In the 19th book in the series – which began back in 1977 – the detective is seen wandering around the town, soul-searching from the bottom of a bottle of aquavit, unaware that a bold jewelry heist is going down nearby. Now a functional drunk, Veum is not aware of much these days, other than his own inner torment. Down on his luck and short of cash, he swallows his professional pride and takes on the occasional infidelity case, as long as it doesn’t require driving. But when a cold case suddenly lands on his lap, he wakes up and decides to go clean.
A 25-year-old case involving a missing child is just about to reach the statute of limitations when the distressed mother, Maja Misvær, approaches our depressed PI. In 1977, Mette Misvær, aged three, vanished from the sandpit behind her house and was never found, despite a full-scale investigation. Veum, who used to work in a child welfare agency, decides that solving this disappearance against all odds can give his life direction. So he takes the case before it is shelved forever.
Veum first hits up his old co-workers who were involved with the investigation. Most of the veteran cops are not happy to see him, but they share what they know. They all agree that no stone was left unturned and little Mette’s vanishing remains a complete mystery. However, one cop remembers there was definitely something off about the eccentric residents of the co-op complex where Mette lived, something unsaid that the neighbours held back. When Veum questions them, he finds the same is true 25 years later, and every interview uncovers a new buried secret. As with the resident priggish architect, a seductive aging actress, and a suspected paedophile, Veum finds that even the grieving mother harbours secrets that may be relevant to the mystery.
Veum is persistent and learns that the big skeleton in the co-op’s closet is a wild New Year’s party that occurred nine months before Mette’s disappearance, wherein the co-op residents swapped spouses. Every single couple that participated divorced in the following years. And one of these neighbours, Nils Bringeland, has just been killed by jewel thieves after a random confrontation on the street in the book’s opening scene. From the onset Veum can’t help thinking there may be a connection to tiny Mette.
When he learns from a jewellery store witness that the man on the street exchanged words with the masked robbers just before being shot, Veum is extremely keen to know what was said. When he susses out another coincidental connection between the swinging neighbours and the jewel heist, you’re sure the determined bulldog will find out if it relates to Mette’s disappearance. Just how the threads of the homicide and the disappearance connect remains elusive and compelling until the final suspenseful pages. Along the way you’ll be treated to healthy doses of atmospheric brooding that only Staalesen, the godfather of Scandinavinan crime fiction, can deliver.
Where Roses Never Die has a markedly different tone from the tragic gravity of We Shall Inherit the Wind, and actually contains some entertaining moments of levity. In scenes that recall Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, Veum sizes up his interviewees. There are some notably comic and nail-bitingly violent moments with a dangerous duo of goons known as Flash Gordon and Thor the Hammer. But Veum, like a Norwegian Columbo, is not one to be put off and keeps circling back to the secretive players of this drama, his passive resistance defying all attempts to impede the investigation.
If this is your first time reading a book in this series, some of which are yet to be translated, you’ll find yourself instantly warming to the strong yet sensitive Veum and the vivid self reflections that punctuate his perambulations. His ongoing bouts with the tyrannies of alcoholism which threaten to thwart his investigative efforts are poignant, and the primal scene that forms the core of the mystery is equal parts shocking and ingenious. Almost 40 years into the Varg Veum odyssey, Staalesen is at the height of his storytelling powers.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars