Review: Fallen Angels

Gunnar Staalesen – Fallen Angels (Blog Tour)

Author Gunnar Staalesen

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. Translated by Don Bartlett. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob – guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers – and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love. Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive … and a killer. Tense, vivid and deeply unsettling, Fallen Angels is the spellbinding, award-winning thriller that secured Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost crime writers.

A confession: Though I have seen Gunnar Staalesen’s name being praised by book lovers for several years, I’ve never taken their advice to read his novels until now. I have so many apologies to make! But it seems I have picked a good time to jump aboard, as Orenda is stepping back in time with this new English translation of a book first published in Staalesen’s native Norwegian in 1989, and the story itself takes his long-standing private investigator Varg Veum into his own past. There is something particularly satisfying in seeing the background and earlier life of a character you’ve built a relationship with over several books, so the Staalesen fan should feel rewarded, while the new reader is given something of a shortcut into the series’ history as Varg revisits both his childhood and taps into his previous career.

Attending the funeral of a former classmate, Varg meets old friends Jakob and Paul. As the service goes on, he finds himself lost in thoughts of their schooldays, a streak of angst running through the memories as icy as the December weather outside the chapel. The three agree to meet that evening for a drink, to connect – or the unspoken possibility, to perhaps remind themselves why they disconnected. A few rounds in, Paul is left behind with a promising conquest; Varg and Jakob head to a club where another old friend is to be found – Johnny, lead singer of The Harpers, with whom Jakob played guitar and keyboards in the 1960s and early 70s.

But tonight there is an obvious rift between the ex-bandmates that goes beyond the cliche of “musical differences”, and finally Varg gets Jakob to spill the reason – it turns out his wife has walked out and he fears she has gone to Johnny, as she did once before. Varg reluctantly agrees to make some calls – after all, the woman in the family photos is Rebecca, Varg’s first love as a teenager, and the siren call of the past is irresistible.

Johnny isn’t difficult to track down in daylight hours, but though he confirms Rebecca and he had an affair, he claims not to have seen her since. Jakob isn’t convinced, and convinces Varg to go with him to a nightclub that evening to confront Johnny – but there is no sign of him. Jakob, disgruntled, heads home.

Varg remains, the memory of a particular young woman from earlier in the evening making him keen to return to the dancefloor. But he has his thoughts interrupted as discovers a dying man on the street near the club – and finds himself entangled in the police investigation. He agrees to work with the officer in charge of the investigation unofficially, for the PI can go places and ask questions of people that the police cannot.

The dogged life of the PI is shown as Varg visits figures from the past with varying degrees of success – but then there is a mysterious letter which suggests the death outside the nightclub and two others, previously deemed accidental, are in fact linked. And that there is someone else at risk too…

And what happened that night in October 1975 to break up both the band and the relationships of two of its members? It comes to light eventually, Varg piecing it together from what he is told and not told, and from his own knowledge of people, and it’s truly awful; I recoiled from the pages as I read it. Even the knowledge that a form of wild justice has prevailed doesn’t take away the sting, though it satisfies somewhat.

I could have lived without some scenes and elements – the men with the groupies, the treatment of a young female singer, the amount of detail on the page of what happened that October night – and I wondered why Jakob had not done more himself to find Rebecca as he has plenty of information to give Varg to help in the search. But remember the original publication date of the novel; this is all in keeping with how crime fiction dealt with such things at the end of the 80s and so I note them but let them pass. Crucially, none of these issues undermine the overall power of the novel, in particular the lyrical language and Varg’s internal musings on the case and how the people involved in it have shaped and are affecting his life.

The descriptions of the landscapes and communities of Varg’s childhood make the book as much social history as novel, and will undoubtedly be a treat for the long-time reader who has wanted to see more of the background of the protagonist, and a hint of how he became the complex man he is today (I doff my cap to translator Don Bartlett for bringing this all to life in an unfussy fashion). And you can luxuriate in them as this is a seriously slow burn narrative – it’s a third of the way through the novel before the murder, and there is no subplot to distract from Varg and his investigations. 

The weather and the nature of the case underline the sense of melancholy that runs throughout the book, which stems from the sense of loss that nostalgia can bring; looking back as an adult on what you had then is so different to how you perceived it in the moment as a child. Varg muses at one point: “When you walk around your home town, you meet your past everywhere… And the child you once were, you will never be again.”

Bleak cold winter weather; bleak cold winter of the soul. And yet there is much to enjoy here (check out Varg’s awkwardness as he sees his middle-aged self in the eyes of the young people in the nightclub), and overall it’s a satisfying read, and one particularly perfect to keep you company on these darkening winter nights. Staalesen fans and lovers of Nordic Noir have a treat in store.

One of the fathers of Nordic Noir, Gunnar Staalesen was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1947. He made his debut at the age of 22 with Seasons of Innocence and in 1977 he published the first book in the Varg Veum series. He is the author of more than 20 titles, which have been published in 24 countries and sold over four million copies. Twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007, starring the popular Norwegian actor Trond Espen Seim. Staalesen has won three Riverton Prize “Golden Pistols” (including the Prize of Honour) and Where Roses Never Die won the 2017 Petrona Award for Nordic Crime Fiction, and Big Sister was shortlisted in 2019. He lives with his wife in Bergen.

Make sure you catch up with all the blog tour reviews…

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