Fallen Angels, by Gunnar Staalesen – book review

There are books, and there are books. Fallen Angels is a book apart. Written in the 1980s, it has been published in English for the first time. Those of us who have read the almost contemporary adventures of the Norwegian PI Varg Veum are in for something very different from what’s, er, come after.

cover of Fallen Angels

The ambition of this thriller, and Staalesen’s determination to do different, make this a singular experience. It took considerably longer to read than I had expected. Nothing really happens, for ages. There is page after page of melancholy remembrance. It contains a truly disgusting crime: in fact, it serves up that crime a number of ways with a number of victims just to make sure we get the point. Rereading what I’ve just written, it sounds awful. It won eight major awards. 

There are books, and there are books. Fallen Angels is a sprawler. It considers the beginning of life, and the end of life. Betrayal. Hopeful dreams. Betrayal. Yearning. Betrayal. Ageing. The abuse of power. Remembering. Forgetting. And no little theology. It took longer to read, because I kept looking places up, or searching for song lyrics, or track listings of Beatles albums, or reading up on bitter almonds. We waste our time differently in these days of lockdown: not for us, not now, the sweaty abandon of clubland with performers with on one hand a star’s sense of entitlement and on the other a performer’s awareness of their own insecurity, in all its senses. Nothing really happens, for ages, but the past is always with us. ‘Yesterday will never come back. Yesterday is a place you have left forever’.

That sense of living day to day, as Veum half daydreams about his long lost love Rebecca and half considers a number of other romantic half-hopefuls, is what gives Staalesen the licence to give us this crime – these crimes. It’s almost as though we have spent so much time with these people, doing not much, that when it turns out that some of them have committed unforgivable acts we know that the writer is doing this to make a point and not to provide warped entertainment. And Staalesen has Veum say what we the reader is thinking. He expresses our shock and throws a couple of punches, though not enough, on our behalf. Rebecca turns out to be not as interesting as we thought she might (forgetting always that Staalesen is unlikely to take the romantic option for character development), and it’s the right decision; Belinda Bruflåt turns out to be more interesting and that’s the right decision too. 

And it is full…of awe. Many books set in Scandinavia make a point of referring to the wild countryside, the weather, the elements. Staalesen brings in the elements to give yet more power to an already taut atmosphere: falling rain, the use of light especially as it affects this coastal location (‘a thin line of grey mixed with red…only the night is awake. For night is the daughter of the sea’).

Does it sound dreamy? It isn’t. Veum as our narrator does bathos in spades (‘Around me lay granite rocks like grey alloys of the night darkness…I stopped in Loddefjord and bought a hamburger’) and continues his Philip Marlowe-esque wisecracking at a rate that had translator Don Bartlett stretching his metaphors. It’s rich and it’s sharp and it’s cynical and sentimental all at once, because that’s who we are. It’s unsettling, moving, sad, hopeful and hopeless.

There are books, and there are books.

You can get Fallen Angels and other Varg Veum titles from the Cafethinking bookshop.

Thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour, and to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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