A Conversation With Scandinavian Crime Fiction Legend Gunnar Staalesen
In the Fall 2017 print issue of Mystery Tribune, Jerry Holt speaks with the Scandinavian crime fiction legend Gunnar Staalesen about the inspirations behind his books and a life of crime writing.
There are many appropriate places in Bergen, Norway, for an interview with Gunnar Staalesen, author of the long-running series that features P.I. Varg Veum: this city located on Norway’s west coast has served Staalesen the way Los Angeles served Raymond Chandler. But perhaps the most appropriate is where I find myself on a rainy evening in early fall—the famed Varg Veum Bar, right in the harbor section.
It’s easy to locate, since there is a life-sized bronze statue of Varg himself at the entrance. A walk up one flight brings me to a frosted glass door emblazoned with the words “Varg Veum Investigations”—and then, just beyond, I find myself in three rooms of shimmering homage to Varg, to Staalesen—and to Norwegian Noir—all lovingly curated by a personable and dedicated man named Hans Bru.
It is here that I spend a delightful and informative evening with Staalesen, looking fit and much younger than his near-70 years. He’s just won the coveted Petrona Award, for best Scandinavian crime novel of the year—his remarkable Where Roses Never Die. And he’s more than happy to reflect on 40 years of Varg Veum, the current state of the Private Eye novel—and his very exciting plans for his future—and Varg’s.
We are currently celebrating 40 years of Varg Veum. How did this character come to you and how do you account for his remarkable durability?
I had written two police procedurals, when I got the idea to try to transform to Norway in the 70-s the formula of the American private eye novel, the way it was written by one of my own favorite writers, Raymond Chandler. There are big differences between USA in the 40-s and 50-s and Norway in the 70-s, so in many way Varg Veum is a distant cousin of Marlowe, Lew Archer and other American private eyes, but the way of telling a story and the use of the language is similar. His durability is difficult for me to explain. I hope it is the quality of the books that has made that possible, and Varg Veum is certainly an icon of Norwegian crime fiction for the last forty years, as many observers have stated.
As surely as Marlowe has Los Angeles and Matt Scudder has New York, Varg has Bergen, Norway—which is of course actually a quite peaceful place. What was required to transform Bergen into a locale worthy of Veum’s investigative talents?
Well, Bergen is definitely not the same in reality as in my books; at least there are more murders committed here in my writing than in real life (I am happy to say). But that is the way of crime fiction through all times. There are not many professional criminals and not much organized crime in the Varg Veum series; the crimes are committed by people like you and me, pressed into a corner that they cannot come out of without – perhaps – killing someone.
Although the Varg Veum series gets top billing on your resume, you have in fact written in other veins and for other media. Could you speak to your theater work and your other novel series The Bergen Trilogy as additional creative outlets? Do they wind up influencing the Veum series? Unless I am mistaken Varg makes an appearance in the Trilogy.
I had my work as a press secretary at the theatre in Bergen in the first years of my writing, and I have always been very fond of drama. The first play I wrote was a musical with a crime plot featuring the biggest, classical detective hero in Norway, Knut Gribb, and part of it took place in Oslo, part on the railway between Oslo and Bergen, and the finale in Bergen.
Later I wrote one “Agatha Christie-like” crime mystery, several comedies, adaptations of Amalie Skram, one of the most important female writers of Norwegian literature, and another big musical. I look upon this as a more or less parallel line of work compared to my crime novels.
The Bergen trilogy is my main work, in my own opinion, and my biggest success, both in Norway, Denmark and France. Yes, Varg Veum comes into the story to solve a hundred years old murder in the final part of the third book, but we meet his mother and father too, and some family secrets are discovered. As you understand, the trilogy is a murder mystery too, as one critic said: “the longest in crime fiction, 1500 pages long”.
Let’s talk about the entire phenomenon of the so-called “Norwegian Noir.” Was I to pinpoint, my first experience of it, even before it was named, would certainly have been the Martin Beck novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which date back to the mid-Sixties. But these days a near-volcano of work is out there. What makes NOW the right time for Norwegian Noir?
I agree with you. It started with Sjöwall & Wahlöö in the 60-s. Then Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson arrived in the 90-s and the beginning of the 21st Century. All Swedes. I myself was translated into English already in the 80-s (only one book), but the Germans started to publish Nordic crime fiction in the 80-s, and the French followed around the turn of the Century. There have been some years with very high quality of crime fiction coming from the Nordic countries, and I guess that may be one of the reasons why “Nordic Noir” is so popular the last 10-20 years. It is difficult for a writer that is part of this to explain why.
Of the Scandinavian Noir writers, it seems to me that you, Jo Nesbø, and the late Stieg Larsson make up the trilogy that holds the largest command on the public imagination. However—only you write in the traditional first person style that is so dear to the American detective genre. How did you make that decision and, in your opinion, why has it been such a good one?
When it comes to the Varg Veum series, I write in fact more in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald than the Nordic tradition, and of course both Chandler and Macdonald wrote in the first person. Mankell, Nesbø and Larsson write more or less directly in the tradition of Sjöwall & Wahlöö; Nesbø perhaps in a more thriller-like way of telling the story. I will say that Larsson, Nesbø and me are three quite different writers, and it is only our background coming from Scandinavia and choosing to write crime fiction that link us together.
Varg Veum has also been interpreted on film, radio, and stage. I think that readers always like to know how you remain true to your own conception as these various conceptions appear. Could you speak about that?
The answer to that is quite simple. The radio adaptions were done in a way that was very true to the original stories and I wrote some of the dialogue myself. The one adaption for the stage was done by me and certainly true to the original story, even if I chose to change the guilty person from the novel to the play. The films are freely adapted stories, some of the totally different from the books they have taken the titles from, and I had nothing to do with that work, that is quite different from the novels.
You are a jazz enthusiast. In fact, the excellent Jan Kåre Hystad Quarter has a series of CDs named Varg Time. Could you speak to the relationship between your words on paper and the music itself? I know the Beat writers of the 1950s were looking for a union between writing and jazz, but it seems to me that what you are doing goes more to the heart of Noir.
I have always loved listening to jazz, since I was a very young boy. As a grown up I have been fascinated by the big saxophone players – the list is too long to mention them all, but Ben Webster is my favorite. This kind of music was very often the background music to American films noir from the 40-s, and there is definitely a sound of “Noir” in this sort of music. When we wanted to create the favorite music of Varg Veum (who has the same taste as myself), we chose from the library of the big American song book, and some European, even doing a version of “Yesterday” as one of the numbers, and the result was three CDs and a performance that we still do from time to time, me reading and speaking about Varg Veum, and the marvelous jazz quartet playing this music.
Like America’s Ross MacDonald, your work has never shied from topicality. I think, among other things, about the wind farm setting in We Shall Inherit the Wind, and its larger plot about environmental terrorism. What are your views about the writer’s responsibility to speak to the here and now?
Well, I think that depends on the writer’s point-of-view towards the world and what goes on around him or her. I have always tried to be a mirror to contemporary conflicts, problems, difficulties in the society when I am writing the books, but in addition to that I want to write novels with existentialist challenges: What will be the result of the choices we make, be it in our personal life or in the more political side of our existence. To me, environmental problems are what we all – and our children and grandchildren – will meet in the years to come, and it is important to find solutions to those.
Varg Veum was of course a social worker who dealt primarily with children before he became a private investigator. Here it seems to me we find an enduring theme in this series. How did you come to this concern and how has it become such a haunting refrain in your work. Here I think of the award-winning Where Roses Never Die, but of course the theme is far more pervasive than that book only.
When I started to write the series, I wanted the background of the hero to be something different from Marlowe, Archer and the other American models. They had worked for the police or the DA, very often. I was looking around in Norway in the 70-s, and I thought: social workers, they are prominent and important in our kind of welfare society. Why not make him a social worker, and why not in the department that takes care of children with difficulties. That will give him sort of a social conscience, too. Many of the cases Varg Veum has solved during the years have involved children or young people, and being on the side of the weak in the society, the poor, the victims, that give my detective a sort of personality that make him even more believable, I hope.
To add to your other honors, you have now been selected for the Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of 2017 for the afore-mentioned Where Roses Never Die. In the United States, you would already have been selected a Grand Master. Is there any tendency to just sit back at this point? I speak for a lot of readers in saying: We hope NOT!!
The answer is clearly NOT! I have just started what I hope will be the next Varg Veum novel (no 19 in the series), to be published – still I hope – in Norway the fall of 2018. And I will not stop there. I will write as long as I find it fun and important to do just that. I started to write seriously to be a writer when I was 17, and now I have just passed 70. The show goes on – and on – and on. There is no business like crime business, to make a bad joke of a beautiful song.
Varg is actually aging—something that most series characters never get around to do. Sue Grafton leaves her Kinsey Milhone forever in the 1980s to avoid that problem, and of course Chandler and MacDonald themselves died before their characters aged significantly. It seems to me that you have a remarkable opportunity to do what has not usually been done—to follow a beloved character into old age. What are your plans there, if it would not be revealing too much?
I never plan that detailed for the future books. What I know is that Varg was 34 in the first book I wrote about him, and in the one I have just started he will be 62. I can still write 3-4 books before he is 70, and since we celebrated his 75th birthday this fall (15 October), I hope he will be in good shape at that age too. But of course, we have lived together through so many years, that this depends I guess a bit on my condition, too, when I reach that age.
Last question—Could you make an overall comment about the potential role of the detective genre in the coming world of the 21st Century. What effects will technological change have on Marlowe’s “Mean Streets”? In some sense the P.I. novel has always embraced personal codes and loyalty. Can these themes continue in a world that grows more and more depersonalized?
The world around us changes. The technological possibilities change. But I think this will have influence on the police procedurals more than on the classic P.I. novel. In that kind of stories there will always be the need for a lone wolf, a man with integrity, empathy and a way of looking into people’s eyes and make a psychological drawing of what their internal landscape looks like – what they are hiding and what their secrets are. The lone wolf detective will survive all changes, because we can all from time to time identify with his loneliness, his stubbornness and his search for the truth behind the lies.
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