Bitter Flowers, by Gunnar Staalesen – book review

You’ll see from the blog tour poster below that I was supposed to put this up yesterday. I put aside enough time to finish the book and write a review. But as Varg Veum got ready to reveal everything, I slowed right down. I was enjoying myself too much to finish. It’s meant to be the other way round, right? But then Bitter Flowers is an unusual book. Gunnar Staalesen’s eco-thriller from 1991, in a brand new translation by Don Bartlett, is a potent mix of the familiar and the other. 

Bitter Flowers front cover

The frustrating thing about series such as this one starring Varg Veum is that they’re quite difficult to consume, because they aren’t published in order. If you’ve been reading the books as they’ve come out in the UK, you’ll have seen Veum age gracefully but then dip into his mid-career adventures. If you are new to it all, stop. Enjoy the whole arc of a life lived both in the moment and the ages, and be better attuned to long-term relationships with consequences across decades. It isn’t a deal-breaker. But given that a theme of this novel is how Veum starts to rebuild himself and does so by delving deep into others’ pasts, I think there’s a layer of richness that could potentially be lost by dipping in and out. Read all the novels in chronological order and come back. They’re all worth it. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Staalesen’s work has often been compared to that of Raymond Chandler, and Veum, like Philip Marlowe, makes pithy and punchy observations about the world around him. Some of them, such as when he describes Ulrichsen as living in an ‘aura of dust and paper…[leaving] nothing apart from a set of routines their successors, if they have any, would drop after a minute or two’ are so sharp and audacious that you have to stop and consider your own position. His repertoire is wider than the usually melancholy Marlowe: it’s midsummer in Bergen and Veum delights in the peak of the season and its meteorological pleasures. Staalesen veterans won’t be surprised to learn that the weather matches the peaks and troughs of the plot: we start in darkness, find the truth in the blaze of the summer heat and then find everything collapses in a storm.

Oddly, though, Bitter Flowers also nods to Agatha Christie, and not just because Hamre, the hapless detective, makes a reference that may or may not be a red herring, or because Veum gathers the key cast together in a way that one of said cast says is ‘like Hercule Poirot with all the suspects assembled in the library’. Despite locations that involve mountains and islands, this novel at times has the feel of a locked-room puzzle. It’s only later that I realise that the metaphorical locked-room contains not the characters but the three separate but inter-related mysteries. By buzzing around all of them, Veum is able to work out what has happened; in so doing he finds suspects who hunt in the middle of a crowd – as Sherlock would put it – and also a bunch of unlikely but plausible coincidences: of those are many a Christie plot made. You have to ask why the police, having drawn the conclusions themselves that the three mysteries intertwine, pursue only one giving Veum a clearer pitch to view from.

And Veum’s perspective is, as ever, driven by a sense of justice. He’s pursuing Camilla’s disappearance, when one of the key characters asks him what gives him the right to question them all. ‘I’ve given myself that right. On Camilla’s behalf. And on behalf of all the others.’ And when he utters these words, it seems to be enough. When it comes to it, Staalesen reinforces our faith in a moral imperative. With a lead character we can trust, red herrings that send us in different directions, a suitably odious bunch of suspects, jaw-dropping moments and a gorgeous Norwegian backdrop, Bitter Flowers is all you need from literary Nordic Noir. Just build in an extra day so you can really enjoy it.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.

blog tour poster

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