Where Roses Never Die

Written by Gunnar Staalesen

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Where Roses Never Die
Orenda Books
RRP: £8.99
Released: June 1 2016

Norwegian private detective Varg Veum is new to me, but then so is his creator Gunnar Staalesen and his British publisher, Orenda Books. Like Varg Veum, though, I can work a few things out for myself: Orenda Books are unfamiliar because they are new, but already making a good impression: they were short-listed for this year's Newcomer Award from the Independent Publishers' Group. With a little detective work I soon discovered that 'Orenda publishes literary fiction, with an emphasis on crime and thrillers, half in translation.'

And Gunnar Staalesen? He has written at least sixteen detective novels, most of them featuring social worker turned private eye Varg Veum. Norwegian TV seems to have taken Veum for at least two series of thrillers, in the way that Swedish TV took Wallander and Martin Beck. His exposure in English translation seems more limited: Orenda Books plan more.

Varg Veum works in Bergen. If you don't know where that - is just think that French reviewers call it, both the North Pole and the land of the Polar Bear. They are not only describing the geographical location – Veum works with the dregs of society, and for all we hear about the wealth and health of the Norwegian economy, this is a society with both dregs and scum. This is the land of moral decay and bleakness, and over the years, Veum finds, things have grown bleaker.

Nearly twenty-five years ago a child disappeared from her parents' garden in a small, vaguely experimental development. Norway has a statute of limitations and the child's mother approaches Veum to make a last investigation before the law closes the case. Veum, after only a short time, decides that the solution lies somewhere in the strained and broken relations between the former residents of the neighbourhood, and travels backwards and forwards, making appointments, talking and drinking coffee. Things are not helped by the recent shooting dead of a resident as a trio of jewel thieves made their escape in town; nor by Veum's near-alcoholism as he tries to deaden himself to the loss of his wife.

The cover lacks a warning, but it is in the reviews quoted inside the book. In interviews Gunnar Staalesn has admitted it: he is a Ross MacDonald and Lew Archer fan. If you only know the Paul Newman films, then you do not really know Lew Archer. Lew Archer can find troubled families like a trained boar finds truffles. Some readers make Hammett and Chandler comparisons, but it is true: Varg Veum is the Scandinavian doppelgänger of Lew Archer and a large part of Where Roses Never Die is like a family therapist discovering the unhappiness’s of neighbours - who are more like painful relatives.

Then it all changes; and the gun on the wall starts going off, metaphorically speaking. The jewel robbery begins to make sense, and then in a brilliant twist Veum identifies the right suspect only to discover that he has been wrong all along about the victim. The consequent human re-attachments do little to help the moral resolution, though: if the roses never die, it may because they were dead before everything began. 

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