Wolves in the Dark
Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett
Orenda Books, 30 June 2017
I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a copy of Wolves in the Dark.
When it says dark, it really means dark. I take my hat off to Staalesen for the treatment he's prepared to mete out to his long running protagonist, Varg Veum.
I've only read a couple of these books before, and this is, I think, no 21 in the series which has been running now for 40 years. So my attachment to the character is perhaps bmuch less than will be that of the typical Norwegian reader. Yet even so, I almost gasped out loud at what happens to Veum in this book.
It has been a bad time for the ex social worker turned private eye. Having lost his true love, Karin, when a case spilled over into his private life, Veum went through a dark time, a time of drink and other types of self indulgence - all the more alarming for never being described directly: Staalesesn uses a very effective technique in this book of giving glimpses of what happened during that period - just flashes here and there as Veum recovers memories, never sure what is real and what's false.
The point is, we don't know how bad it was, exactly what he did, or how far he went. That question becomes pressing when some stuff from the bad times reaches out to bite him. One morning, Veum is turned out of his bed and hauled off to the police station to answer for images found on his computer - images of child abuse.
Of course, Veum is innocent. He says so.
We trust him.
And his lover Sølvi - whose daughter, Helene, Veum spends time with - trusts him.
These questions really begin screaming at us when Veum, sick of the accusations, desperate to clear his name, makes a run for it into the backstreets of Bergen - and needs sanctuary.
It's an electric situation. Yes, we think Veum is innocent. But yes, also, we know there have been too many nice, smiling, plausible men who "don't seem the type", who protest their innocence, who swear that the filth "must have been planted" on their computers, that they've been framed, set up. Poor them.
It is, as I said, very dark indeed. Can Veum dredge enough from his drink raddled mind to work out what happened - to sort fact from fantasy? A series of cases he was involved with may give a hint, but he's no better at recalling those than he is his private life - Staalesen essentially gives us not one case but several, which partly overlap, and sets us - and Veum - a fiendish challenge with the clock ticking, and Veum's freedom in jeopardy all the time.
But worse - there is real corruption behind what happened here. If Veum wasn't guilty, who was? And who may be in danger even as he desperately cudgels his brain for lost details and missing facts?
It's the most intense crime fiction I've read for a long, long time - and I'll warn you, in places, doesn't make for comfortable reading at all, as you might expect, given the subject. Dark, dark, dark. But also audacious and showing that this series and this author are still able to surprise, to take risks, to reinvent themselves and press the boundaries.
Shocking, nail biting and tense, this is THE thriller of the summer.