Interview: Gunnar Staalesen, author

Another day, another Scandinavian gumshoe is introduced to a British readership. But what makes Varg Veum different? His creator, Gunnar Staalesen, talks to Jackie McGlone

• Gunnar Staalsen and Ian Rankin met this week to talk about the influence of their heroes' home cities on their books. Picture: Jane Barlow

Gunnar Staalesen does not look like a man with murder in his heart. A trim, bespectacled 63-year-old Norwegian, with long, silver hair swept back off his thin features, he could be a professor of Norse literature, an authority on the Viking sagas or trolls, perhaps. But it is death that is on Staalesen's mind. The prolific, award-winning author is plotting to kill someone whose demise will devastate fans of noirish Nordic crime fiction worldwide.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For Staalesen's protagonist, Varg Veum, the private eye anti-hero of 15 bestsellers and several blockbusting films in Norway, is 68 and all of his blood-stained adventures are related in real time, so there's a limit to how long the wise-cracking gumshoe can keep going down those mean fjords.

Indeed, as we speak, Staalesen reveals that Philip Marlowe's Norwegian "relative" is holed up somewhere in Bergen, in an alcoholic stupor. He's hitting the aquavit again in the wake of a tragedy in his private life. (Veum has had a spell in rehab in the novel, Bitter Flowers.) He'll have to sober up soon, though, because Staalesen has already worked out another serial chiller for his sozzled sleuth, which he plans to start writing in the New Year.

"Varg Veum was born in 1942, so he's five years older than I am; he was 34 when I created him," says Staalesen, who introduced his flawed detective - a "slightly" alcoholic ex-social worker and the divorced father of one son - in 1977 in Bukken til havresekken (which translates, enigmatically, as Goat of Geese), with the words: "In the beginning was the office, and in the office I sat."

We sit in the auditorium of Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre Theatre, where that evening Varg Veum will "meet" John Rebus, as the latest hot literary name from a cold climate is given a warm welcome by Scotland's top crime writer, Ian Rankin. Organised by the Norwegian Consulate and Edinburgh University, the event marks the 25th anniversary of the gifting by Bergen of Edinburgh's Norwegian Christmas tree.

It's a neat metaphor, for one of these wintry days in Bergen - the city where Staalesen was born and brought up and still lives - he's going to have to bump off Varg, whose first name means "Wolf". His full name translates as "Wolf-in-a-holy-place," old Norse for an outsider. "Which is what every private eye is, an outsider living on the inside but always outside society," says Staalesen.

So his detective is a loner in the hard-boiled tradition of American crime? "Oh yes, he's the archetypal lone wolf," agrees Staalesen. "Therefore he can explore every level of society, from the highest echelons to the underground world of the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the damaged."

"Varg is my take on Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, the holy trinity of American crime writers, who have really inspired me, particularly Chandler, whose writing I admire very much," he says. "He's the Shakespeare of crime writers." So much so, says Staalesen, that he decided to transplant Marlowe from the west coast of America to the west coast of Norway and reinvent him as Varg Veum.

"It helped that the oil industry had transformed Norway into such a rich country, although that immense wealth brought many social problems. Our lifestyle became much more like that of the west coast of the USA."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The experiment obviously worked. Now, his books are translated into more than a dozen languages and he's twice won Norway's top crimewriting prize, the Golden Pistol, for novels in the bleak tradition readers have come to expect from Scandinavian sleuths, ranging from Sjowall and Wahloo's Inspector Martin Beck and Henning Mankell's dour Kurt Wallander to Lisbeth Salander, the late Stieg Larsson's girl with the dragon tattoo. Only three of Staalesen's novels have been translated into English so far, but, Staalesen's publishers seem determined to cash in on this Scandinavian snowball effect and have pledged to publish his backlist.

So Varg will not die just yet, concedes his creator, speaking in excellent English. But when the end is nigh, he has a cunning plan: he intends to have Thomas, Varg's son, become convinced that the circumstances of his father's death are suspicious. "He'll begin to investigate - and I'll have a new, young detective!" he says. "I believe it will work well because Varg is an ordinary man, the sort of guy you might not notice if you sat next to him on a train or a bus, so his son will make a perfect detective, too. Actually, the actor, Trond Espen Seim, who plays Varg in the film versions, is almost too blond, too handsome, according to some. I've never described his looks in any of my books, just as Ian [Rankin] never tells us what Rebus looks like either. I don't think Chandler thought Marlowe looked like Humphrey Bogart either, more Cary Grant, I believe."

Staalesen has a clearer idea of Varg Veum's appearance now, though, since he can stroll into Strandkaien, the street where the private eye's office is situated and where there's a life-size sculpture of the long-haired detective, aged about 45 - "a good age for a man," says Staalesen. "The sculpture is quite a compliment," says Staalesen, noting that not many fictional detectives are so memorialised, apart from Sherlock Holmes, who first piqued his own curiosity in crime writing.

"I read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was about 13 - I was already writing stories, but not crime fiction because I thought the plots were far too complex and complicated for me to unravel. Then I discovered the Martin Beck books by the Swedish writers, Sjowall and Wahloo, the king and queen of atmospheric Scandinavian crime fiction. I'm also a big fan of Chester Himes's Harlem detective novels, but for me Chandler's the master. He made crime fiction sexy - all those femmes fatales."

Staalesen began creating scenes of crime while working as an information officer at Den Nationale Scene, the Bergen theatre, for which he's written plays and crime musicals - one rejoices in the title Dead Sardines - and is writing a new comedy for the theatre. He's also written books for children - he has two grandchildren - as well as 17 short stories, a graphic novel starring Veum, and a historical trilogy that was seven years in the writing and which has outsold all of his crime novels in Norway.

"My crime fiction holds up a mirror to Norwegian society," he says. "For me, Bergen, which has a population of around 300,000, is a city of secrets and stories. I just paint a much darker picture of it than the reality. Norway is actually a peaceful country, although organised crime is escalating, so I like topicality. My latest Varg Veum novel, We Shall Inhert the Wind, deals with environmental issues. I read four newspapers every day - I get all my plot ideas from them, even if it's just a single, newsy sentence that sets me thinking."

He writes about issues he cares passionately about, such as the fractures in the once-lauded Scandinavian welfare state, the collapse of community spirit, the hidden links that bind these cosy corners of the wealthy North with a larger, poorer world elsewhere, all the tropes of the Nordic genre.

In Writing on the Wall, for instance, Veum rages against a sinister world that draws teenage girls from privileged families into drugs and prostitution, while The Consorts of Death tells the story of the neglected child of a drug-addicted mother and her violent partner. And Yours Until Death centres on a teenage gang terrorising single mothers living with their families in an isolated high-rise community.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He's been privileged to visit Edinburgh, Staalesen concludes, having now seen for himself the enigmatic city that Rankin writes about as forensically as he writes about Bergen. However, he can't wait to get back to his home-office. "I'm rarely so happy as I am when I'm writing the first chapter of a new Varg Veum novel," he smiles.

l Yours Until Death, Writing on the Wall and The Consorts of Death, are published in paperback by Arcadia Books under the Euro Crime imprint, at 8.99.



Profile, 544pp, 25


Tolstoy died only 100 years ago - 7 November 1910. If it seems surprising that he lived to within a few years of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, this is because the Tolstoy most of us know as one of the trio of great 19th-century Russian novelists, along with Turgenev and Dostoevsky, died long before the man Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina turned his back on literature, and in the second half of his long life, wrote only a few pieces of fiction.

It was not only literature he rejected, but all the social and political values of his early life. A nobleman, landowner, soldier, gambler, debauchee, husband and father, he aspired to be a saint, or rather what the Russians recognised as a "holy fool", one who divested himself of property and strove to live according to his interpretation of the Christian gospel. Yet he rejected the divinity of Christ and came to regard the Russian Orthodox Church as an accomplice in the tyranny of Tsarist Russia and the state‘s agent in keeping the peasantry and urban poor in deprivation and misery. He became the prophet of a new religion of love, pacifism and social service. The Church responded by excommunicating him, the state by setting its secret police to watch the every move of this dangerous subversive, whose opposition to violence did not render him any less an object of suspicion. Nobody could be neutral about Tolstoy, though few could ever be single-minded in their judgment of him.

Take Chekhov. He wrote: "when Literature possesses a Tolstoy it is easy and pleasant to be a writer. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature." Given that War and Peace is widely considered the greatest of all novels, these words are understandable. Chekhov even added that as long as there was Tolstoy it didn't matter if his own work wasn't as good as he hoped it would be. Yet Chekhov also, while praising the late novella The Kreutzer Sonata for "the importance of its theme and the beauty of its execution", deplored "the arrogance of the author in discussing matters about which he understands nothing and is prevented by obstinacy from even wanting to understand anything". In some respects, Tolstoy was "an ignorant man" and one who didn't want to learn.

Like many who seek to make themselves perfect, Tolstoy was intensely selfish. He was indeed as self-indulgent when he turned to religion as he had been in his dissolute youth. That his self-indulgence took the form of asceticism and rejection of material values doesn't alter this fact. He knew that the course he chose to take caused his wife Sonya pain and anxiety. As a very young woman she had married a nobleman and a literary genius whose work she had been proud to assist; she found herself in middle age, the mother of eight children (five others having died young) and the wife of a man who had rejected everything that she valued. To his mind it was her fault that she wasn't capable of approving and following the path he had taken.

Of course he was right in much that he believed and did. The Russian autocracy was deplorable. Capital punishment was wrong. The contrast between the wealth and luxury of the upper classes and the wretchedness of the poor was an offence against the gospel of Christ. But however noble his aims, Tolstoy, the religious and social revolutionary, remained in thrall to his ego. He might, in the Russian style, condemn himself for his sins and seek redemption, but the effect of his actions on others did not matter to him.

Rosamund Bartlett has written a splendidly lucid and sympathetic biography of this extraordinary man. She portrays him warts and all, and she is not blind either to the unconscious comedy of his journey. There might be those in the Orthodox Church who came to see this heretic as the Antichrist, but there were many who regarded him as "the conscience of the nation".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On the other hand, Bartlett observes that "the majority of the peasants knew only that he was a count and thus representative of a hated class. His criticism of the Church and State undermined their authority and paved the way for the Revolution. The Bolsheviks paid lip-service to Tolstoy as their ally, and persecuted the Tolstoyans.

Sonya was right in thinking Tolstoy should have stuck to writing novels. The whole family would have been happier if he had done so. But he couldn't. It wasn't enough to be Russia's greatest novelist; he had to be a saint too. His only equal among Russian writers, Dostoevsky, a man of deep religious faith also, was wiser. He stuck to the day job.