PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take the case seriously.
Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark intent is hidden by the anonymity of the internet. And then things get personal…
One of the nicest things about being a book blogger is discovering new voices. But all the focus on the new can sometimes drown out established masters and I do feel that sometimes we overlook the ‘new to me’ books and authors that are out there and awaiting discovery.
I say this because Gunnar Staalesen most definitely isn’t a ‘new’ author – he has written over twenty titles, been published in 24 countries and there have been twelve film adaptations of his novels in his native Norway. By any standards he’s incredibly popular and successful but, despite reading a lot of crime fiction, not a name I would have recognised before being invited onto the blog tour for his latest Varg Veum novel, Big Sister.
So on realising this was the twentieth book in the Varg Veum series I did feel a little behind the times and was worried there would just be too much backstory from the series to allow me to engage with the book. Those fears proved groundless however as Big Sister easily reads as a standalone and, whilst some of Varg’s earlier cases are referenced in passing, there are no spoilers (quite the achievement!) and the glimpses of them that we get serve only to encourage the reader to go back and read about some of Varg’s earlier cases.
Varg himself is also very easy to get to know as a character. A PI of the old-school, his world-weary attitude and sarcastic humour chime with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Unlike Marlowe however, Veum’s background is in social work; an interesting history that I felt added a compassionate edge to his character, something that isn’t always seen in PI fiction. He does however have the PI’s classic unflappability. Whether it’s having his unknown half-sister walk into his office with a case, having a series of doors slammed in his face during the course of a single afternoon, or being physically threatened by a biker gang, Varg’s stoicism and personal morality see him in a dogged pursuit of his goal.
And that goal takes Varg to some very dark places. From a seemingly simple missing person’s case, the narrative of Big Sister reaches back into the past and to a single, horrifying act, the repercussions of which now threaten a new generation. It’s a masterful use of the butterfly effect, with Staalesen pulling each character into the orbit of this one resonating event without ever tipping the balance of plausibility. Not a novel that relies on set-pieces, the tone is muted, filled with claustrophobic menace and slow-build suspense. I didn’t find it a page-turner in the traditional sense but there’s definitely a compulsion there – a slow inter-weaving of Staalesen’s various strands that pulled me into the narrative until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.
Chandler-esque PI novels aren’t always my cup of tea – I often find the detectives too sardonic and the plots too convoluted – but Big Sister was an enjoyable read, in as much as a dark Nordic crime thriller ever can be! An accomplished and confident novel that has been ably translated by Don Bartlett, Big Sister combines a suspenseful, finely-tuned narrative with a social conscience and a empathetic, strong-willed protagonist. The end result is a sharp and intelligent thriller that will delight noir fans and no doubt introduce many new readers to the name Gunnar Staalesen.
Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Amazon and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The tour continues until 30 June so please do check out the other stops along the way!