Written by Gunnar Staalesen — A knock comes in the night and a hungover Varg Veum answers the door. Police detective Hamre has come, this time not for help, but rather with a warrant for Veum’s arrest. Both men are fast closing in on retirement age, and they move weary bones through the night towards the station. Unbelievably, traces of child pornography are linked to Veum’s computer and he is accused of being tied to a paedophile ring. Before much else can be done Veum is thrown into a windowless jail cell.
Wolves in the Dark is the 21st book in Gunnar Staalesen’s famous Varg Veum crime series, and the seventh to be translated into English. It’s a series that started way back in 1977. This edition has been flawlessly translated by the Norwegian-to-English powerhouse Don Bartlett, who also did Where Roses Never Die, which we reviewed back in 2016.
Veum experienced the loss, four years prior, of his great love Karin and this hangs low over him as dense and weighty as the Scandinavian weather. The bouts of sobriety seen in Where Roses Never Die are long behind Veum and aquavit is now his most steady companion.
But the history he has with the Bergen cops works in his favour, and police detective Waagenes believes Veum when he says he is completely in the dark when it comes to the child pornography. But barrister Beatrice Bauge is not as trusting and sends Veum to the state prison in Asane while the case is investigated.
While in jail, Veum is left with nothing but a pen and a pad on which he starts to trace out past cases, sorting through memories fragmented by alcohol abuse. He attempts as best he can to piece together who might have framed him. We dive back into old cases and leave Bergen for the fjords as Veum tries to understand how he got to this place.
What this all amounts to is an incredible example of Nordic noir. Staalesen’s first person narration delivers what we’ve come to crave from Scandinavian crime fiction: the cool demeanour of the locals, the juxtaposition between town and country life, brooding protagonists, calm yet serious crime drama… and he does it all filtered through the personality, wit, and complexities of his detective, Veum.
The backlog of cases force Veum to confront himself, and the way his life has devolved since Karin’s death. His story is utterly compelling. The brooding Nordic atmosphere, that arguably Staalesen invented, is all over the book. But mixed in with it are fresh similes, dry wit, and an emotional and truthful reflection of a man on the verge of breaking. The disintegration of Veum over the course of four years plays heavy into the narrative tension, and the detective is forced to question whether he might actually have been capable of this crime during an aquavit blackout.
As the investigation into Veum progresses a shocking and troubling twist is thrown into the mix. But before Veum and we can learn more he is able to slip the hands of the police and finds himself on the run in his hometown of Bergen. Veum then works to get to the bottom of his case and we watch as the detective inadvertently starts piecing his own life back together as well.
The case gets big, and the second half of the book gallops along with ferocity and shows a writer at the top of his form nearly 50 years into his career. Though a lot of background from previous novels figures into the narrative and helps to shape out the arch that Staalesen has been building, the book works just as well as a standalone.
Wolves in the Dark is a lean, existential, touching and heart-pounding tale that exemplifies why a fuss is and should be made regarding Scandinavian crime fiction. If you are new to Staalesen, Wolves is a great place to start, and if you are a fan well then buckle up because this a thrilling ride.
Gunnar Staalesen told us about his favourite crime classics in September of 2015 so be sure to check out his influences, and read some of the other five-star reviews of books in this series like We Shall Inherit the Wind from 2015.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars