Posted in Random Things Tours

Bitter Flowers by Gunnar Staalesen

PI Varg Veum has returned to duty following a stint in rehab, but his new composure and resolution are soon threatened when a challenging assignment arrives on his desk. He is offered a job by his physical therapist Lisbeth, with whom he has built a friendship during treatment. She has a friend who needs a house sitter and she drives Varg out there to look around, only to find a man dead, floating in the elite swimming pool. As Varg leaps in to check for signs of life, Lisbeth goes missing. Most chillingly, Varg Veum is asked to investigate the ‘Camilla Case’: an eight-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of a little girl, who was never found. As the threads of these apparently unrelated crimes come together, against the backdrop of a series of shocking environmental crimes, Varg Veum faces the most challenging, traumatic investigation of his career.

This is one of those slow burn thrillers and we find Veum at a pivotal moment in his life, just out of rehab and fighting a reliance on Aquavit. Whilst not fully back to his investigative peak, Lisbeth’s idea of a simple house sitting would have suited him perfectly, with no pressure. The circumstances he then finds himself in are really not going to help his recovery, it’s enough to find himself embroiled in a murder investigation, but even worse, could he actually be a suspect? Instinct takes over though and Varg can’t help looking into the victim’s life, once he is identified as Tor Aslaksen. He is also very concerned about the disappearance of Lisbeth, as he battled to save the dead man’s life. Needless to say he faces some very awkward questions from Inspector Hamre about how he ended up there, alone in a strange house with a dead man. His digging reveals a connection to a case from some years before, that of a missing child. As if that wasn’t enough, when he looks into the victim’s employer, his company is under suspicion for environmental crimes, namely the alleged improper disposal of toxic waste. There are noisy protestors demonstrating on site and within the conflict there are two brothers, who were childhood friends of Aslaksen and stand on opposing sides of the demonstration. These strands seem so disparate, but the author cleverly threads them back to the murder victim with so much care, taking his time to unwind the truth. Yet, he also keeps a steady tension and occasionally surprises the reader as Varg’s curiosity takes him into dangerous and threatening places. is enough to heighten Veum’s interest. Nobody’s fool and uncompromisingly persistent, Veum is intrigued enough to take a closer look, thereby uncovering a connection to the unsolved disappearance of a seven-year-old girl nearly a decade earlier in the dead of night. Casting his net wider and following the threads back to their fruition, Veum tries to make sense of the past and it’s significance on current events, specifically the murder of Tor Aslaksen and all that follows.

Gunnar Staalesen

I gradually started to bond with Varg, possibly due to the first person narrative; we’re with him all the way because we make discoveries at exactly the same time he does. His narrative can be abrupt at times, but always questioning and challenging those around him. As we experience his inner voice, unedited and raw, we can feel his struggles and the way his personal demons affect his life and his investigations. Yes, he has weaknesses, but his intelligence and determination are undimmed. I felt that, despite these struggles, I was safe with him as a narrator. I was firmly on his side throughout and didn’t doubt his innocence once. I didn’t work out the reasons for the murder, nor the tragic events which followed, but I did feel a constant sense of foreboding even from the first chapter. The author has a good grasp of human nature and how trauma affects people in very different ways. The psychology of addiction was also well observed and I enjoyed seeing Varg’s progress as he tries to recover while investigating a complex and emotional case. His developing relationship with Karen and friendship with Siv are handled with care and a gentleness I didn’t expect.

The case itself is emotive, allowing the reader to learn about Varg’s fragility, as he faces the horror of a child missing for eight years. By taking us back into Varg’s past, we can really see progression in his character; how did he get from there to his current stint in rehab? His previous career in child welfare has left him cynical, but he isn’t completely jaded yet. Everything he has experienced makes him more humane with an automatic reflex to fight for the underdog. I loved his underlying thirst for social justice too, something that could remain hidden from others, behind that calm and focused exterior. Staalesen provides the reader with a steady drip feed of Varg’s discoveries and this pace helps us understand the key characters better, especially where he becomes a nuisance by popping up to question certain people time and again. Even threats and constant police pressure can’t stop him from interfering and he is dogged in his determination to discover the truth. This is not a high octane thriller, but it’s more thorough and compelling because of that. Varg is not one of those showy, ‘on the edge’ investigators either, but the gradual opening up of his character allows us to trust him and truly know him. This felt like to me like a real PI might have worked back in the 1980’s, investing the time and noting the small details that crack a case. We never get the sense, as with other, flashier, P.I. characters, that he is more important than the case. There’s only a hint of fast action and real danger, but it has more impact and authenticity because of that restraint. This is complex, intelligent and authentic storytelling with a hero I enjoyed getting to know.

Author:

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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