Deep Dive Into “Big Sister” By Gunnar Staalesen

In Summer 2018 issue of Mystery Tribune, Jerry Holt reviews Big Sister, the recent crime novel by the Scandinavian crime fiction legend Gunnar Staalesen and takes a deep dive into author’s popular series featuring private eye Varg Veum. 

His interview with the author on a life dedicated to crime writing can also be read at A Conversation With Scandinavian Crime Fiction Legend Gunnar Staalesen

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“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country.  What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun.  I put them on and went out of the room.”——–Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely.

“….I had sworn I would complete the assignment whatever the cost.  No one would thank me.  No one would pay me.  All I would be left with was a final crumb of self-respect. You didn’t give up, Varg.  You finished the marathon.”——Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum in Big Sister.

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Those who know Scandinavian detective fiction know that nobody is as consistently true to the genre as Gunnar Staalesen.  Since 1977, this Bergen, Norway-based writer has chronicled the cases of social worker turned private eye Varg Veum, and for lo these 40-plus years Staalesen has never lost sight of his original mission:  to bring to the page an antihero whose footsteps would follow the mean streets of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.   Bergen, a wonderfully peaceful western Norway city, is not Chandler’s Los Angeles, but it doesn’t need to be.  As Staalesen depicts his city, it is every bit as intrigue-filled as sundrenched L.A.—and every bit as dangerous:  not only physically dangerous, but psychologically dangerous, since the ultimate peril for both Marlowe and Veum is that possible future moment when their particular code of ethics can no longer survive the corruption of the world around them.

In Big Sister, the newest entry in Staalesen’s long-running series, we find Varg Veum still in the game despite a series of tragedies, the principal one being the death of his girlfriend Karin, which has sent him on a long spiral down the Aquavit bottle.  He’s functioning, but barely.  He has also entered his 60s and is doing a lot more looking backward than looking forward.  Into his office comes Norma Johanne Bakkevik, a stately but frayed former beauty, now 76, who says she is Varg’s half- sister.

It’s news to Varg—but based on what she tells him it’s also plausible, and by the time Norma further reveals that she needs Varg’s detective services, Staalesen’s hook is in and, from this point on, the pages are going to turn very quickly.  Norma has a god-daughter who has gone missing in the process of searching for her own birth father.  Inevitably, as Varg investigates this case, he also finds himself investigating the gaps in his own life that caused him not to know about Norma.

And the dark doors of the past just keep opening.  The biological father, Robert Hole Hansen, is very much alive and is somehow connected with an old but hardly forgotten case of the rape of one Veslemoy Valaker, a child at the time.  Valaker, now catatonic and institutionalized, has a story to tell but it isn’t going to come easy.   Add to that the involvement of a sadistic motorcycle gang, a shadowy suicide pact, and all those loose threads involving the missing god-daughter, and Varg is soon plunged into a generational mystery whose plotting rivals that of the great Ross MacDonald who, along with Chandler, is Staalesen’s other great influence.

Staalesen writes so engagingly, punctuating every scene with dialogue that if cut would bleed, that it is sometimes easy to miss the many subtleties of his process.   Varg Veum is one of the few series detectives that still engages in the actual process of detection:  nothing comes easy here as he finds his way from one taciturn witness to another, never quite able to believe what he hears.  Since the locale, Bergen, is, like Chandler’s L.A., a significant character in and of itself, Varg must listen closely to it as well.  And Staalesen’s writing comes perhaps closest to poetry when his city is the subject:

“In Bergen, November is the month of the grey monk.  The snow comes later.  The sun makes a guest appearance or two.  Most days are grey and more often than not it rains.  Not summer’s short bursts….nor spring’s refreshing rain, which washes away the remnants of winter and makes the town clean again.  In November, rain is the personification of gloom, as though really it wants to be snow, like a teenage girl with her head in the clouds, dreaming about being a prima ballerina one day.”

But along with its language, the series has many, many other rewards.  In fact, to read Staalesen in sequence is to discover a remarkable history of western Norway—the discovery of oil in the late 1960s and the subsequent rise of corporate evildoing can be traced through these volumes in stark detail.   But at their center, the books are first and always chronicles of the sometimes quixotic struggles of one man who wants to do just one thing right in a world gone terribly, terribly wrong.

As stated, the work is always perilous:  Varg takes a beating at the hands of the motorcycle gang in this book that might well have killed even a younger man, and we are none too sure at book’s end whether the injuries sustained from that beating have not injured him permanently.  “I was dead tired,” Varg says near the end of the book, and you can tell that he is.  But he doesn’t stop.  To quit would be the ultimate betrayal not only of the client—but of himself.

…there is something in Staalesen’s prose that is better understood if the reader has gotten to spend some time in Norway.

In the United States, of course, the long tradition of the Private Investigator dates from Poe, but also has iconic connections with the Western genre, where the lonely individual pitted against dark forces that often took the form of bureaucracy also played out this story.  As war became the ultimate bureaucracy, crime in the United States became, as the memorable line from The Asphalt Jungle has it, “just a left-handed form of human endeavor.”  And here is where the American P.I. found his—and later her—true niche, as an all-too-human seeker for truth in a world that sets no real store by truth at all.   In Scandinavia, though, the mystery genre seems to have been modernized through police procedurals—the work of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall  of Sweden looks particularly large here with their creation of police detective Martin Beck, a troubled, introspective man who bears many similarities to Philip Marlowe, but who is nonetheless a part of the very bureaucracy that Marlowe has moved beyond.  This is also true for Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, also Swedish, and for Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer, who brings us back to Norway.  But when we search for the independent operator in Nordic Noir—the Philip Marlowe or the Lew Archer of these colder climes—all roads lead to Gunnar Staalesen.

Deep Dive Into Big Sister By Gunnar Staalesen author

From the beginning, Staalesen has gotten the tone of these books just right.  Yes the American influence is there and brilliantly incorporated, but there is something in Staalesen’s prose that I suspect is better understood—and certainly better felt—if the reader has gotten to spend some time in Norway, as I was able to do during this past year.  To live in Norway—and especially Bergen—is to experience a kind of vastness of landscape and sky that often puts the strivings of humanity in perspective.  There is a passage in Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death (2009) that absolutely nails what I am talking about:

“It was beginning to get dark as I drove into Osen where the Gaular waterway plunged like a faded bridal veil towards the fjord.  High up above the mountains the moon had appeared, the earth’s pale consort, distant and alone in tis eternal orbit around the chaos and turmoil below.  It struck me that the moon wasn’t alone after all.  There were many of us adrift and circling around the same chaos, the same turmoil, without being able to intervene or do anything about it.  We were all consorts of death.”

It is quite unnecessary for me to point out that this is writing—not to mention genre writing—of the highest order.  Those who read the books in English can of course be thankful to Staalesen’s longtime translator Don Bartlett here, but I have mastered just enough Norwegian by now to know that the passage reads even more beautifully in its native Norwegian.   To read this passage is to unalterably be put in mind of Chandler’s heartbreakingly beautiful moment in The Little Sister (1949) when Marlowe, out of contacts, out of leads, and utterly, completely alone looks out onto the Los Angeles night and says, virtually in prayer:

“Let the telephone ring please.  Somebody call me up and plug me into the human race   again.  Even a cop….  Nobody has to like me.  I just want to get off this frozen star.”

The Little Sister.  Big Sister.  Could the linkage be more clear?  The journey between that Big Sleep and those Consorts of Death is a short one indeed.  For nearly sixty years, the very name “Marlowe” has conjured for me that ultimate outsider, the narrator who pursues the inscrutable Kurtz up the river in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  And for over 30 years, the name “Varg Veum”  has continued to mirror its Old Norse meaning—“Wolf in a Sanctuary.”  The figure of the Wolf in Scandinavia means so many things:  “Outlaw,” “Loner”—even “banned From the City.”   How many ways are there to say “Outsider”?   But Staalesen’s P.I. knows very well that being the Outsider, lonely though it may be, also provides a very resourceful vantage point.  Varg Veum consistently interacts with characters so caught up in their own pasts that they have no perspective any more; no clear vision.  And he brings exactly that—a perspective that might actually lead to truth.

…there are only two other writers that [arguably] have achieved the depth of insight in detective writing that Staalesen has:  Chandler, and Ross MacDonald.

One afterthought, but a dear one:  Threaded through the complexity of Big Sister  is yet another search—this one propelling Veum into a mystery situated in the Norwegian jazz scene of the 1950s.   When mention is made of  real-life tenor sax icon Ben Webster, Varg simply says:  “Webster’s my favorite, too.”   If you want to know how true that line is, do as I did and put some Webster on the stereo as you read Big Sister.  Webster’s blues-rooted style reflects—in music—the same always tentative and sometimes ragged kind of search for the right musical phrase that is Varg Veum’s working method if detection.  For Veum, Webster is playing, as Stevie Wonder might have it, songs in the key of life.

For the reasons I have stated along with so many more, Big Sister is a vital contribution to the international body of P.I. literature.  As noted, there are only two other writers that I know of have achieved the depth of insight in detective writing that Staalesen has:  Chandler, and Ross MacDonald.  And neither of those allowed their characters to move into their 60s, where longevity itself becomes a precarious concept—where no day is long enough and every night is filled with existential dread.  And yet through it all Varg Veum perseveres, fighting his own particular version of the good fight, standing sentinel for a world still desperately in need, whether it knows it or not, of somebody who cares—and who particularly cares about those who the rest of the world has completely so abandoned.  It is especially important to Big Sister that Veum frequently takes on those who have been abandoned by their own families.  In this book he himself gets just so close and no closer to his own family, one that to this point he has considered lost.   In this way the book becomes the kind of inward journey that perhaps the detective story has always been, but Staalesen depicts that journey with a clarity whose brilliance we have not seen before.

It is hard to imagine a more vital protagonist for our times than Varg Veum, a weary man past his prime who just keeps at it; who must and will “finish the marathon.”    Keep doing what you do, Varg.  And never die. This weary world needs you more every day.

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