Gunnar Staalesen - The Consorts of Death
The protagonist of Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen's long-running series, Varg Veum, is the sort of casually disheveled private detective who manages to solve his mysteries about ten pages before the reader can be expected to. He is, then, something of a regular fellow, a man much like his audience in that he is generally likable, wants to do a good job, and succeeds at times, but not always. Consorts of Death is the thirteenth novel in a series which shows no signs of slowing down, though Veum himself is getting older (though not particularly wiser).
The novel opens with a phone call, a 'blast from the past' in Cecilie, a woman with whom Veum once had a fling, and, long ago, worked with in the Norwegian social services, specifically in rescuing and protecting disadvantaged children. Cecilie tells Veum that the small child nicknamed Johnny Boy, and now going by his real name, Jan Egil, has been released from prison and, after murdering Terje Hammersten has left a 'death list', a list of names of people he is going to kill – and Veum is on the list.
There we have about a chapter's worth of information, and in Staalesen's world a chapter is no more than five or six pages. From the beginning we are pummeled with plot, and the details just keep on coming. From this intriguing beginning – for Veum remembers his brief time with Jan Egil as positive, and he was always there to help the troubled youth – we are propelled back in time, first to their first meeting, when Jan was a small child, and then again when he was seven, and then later again when he was seventeen. These recollections form the vast bulk of the novel, and seem to carry with them a similar theme – Jan, for all his innocence and stunned looks, has an uncanny knack for being in the immediate vicinity of a murder scene, and the murdered people tend to be his foster parents. Time and again he is the only one present when the murdered body is found, and, at least for a while, people are willing to take responsibility for the crime. But then, when he is seventeen and able to be charged as an adult, the evidence proving him as the murderer of his foster parents in Sunnfjord is too strong, and though Veum believes in the boy's innocence, he is sent to jail.
So far, I am giving little away. These facts appear early on, and are then developed in greater detail as the novel progresses. Characters have a tendency to enter the orbit of Jan Egil and Veum, but they never leave, recurring again and again throughout the decades to add further twists to an already complicated story. What seems straightforward soon becomes a vast tangle of information, leaving the reader as overwhelmed as Veum, whose only solace seems to be an occasional drink with a hot-shot lawyer far too interested in the case for his own good, and the odd tumble with the women who seem always to be attracted to him.
But the plot of a crime novel is, virtually by definition, supposed to be complicated. If there is one thing that generally remains true, it is this – the misdeeds of the past always return to haunt the happiness of the present. A stone cannot go unturned in a novel such as this, and indeed it does not. Jan Egil's life touches a variety of people who are, at first inextricably but then, as we gain clarity, understandably, linked together in a fine web involving drugs, prostitution and violence.
So much for plot. The denouement, when it comes, is satisfying enough, and the tangles are made suitably smooth and clear. Varg Veum is less an active force in the novel than an observer, the camera through which the stories of the characters play out. An astute reader can, if they wish, unravel the mystery along with Veum, but this is really the sort of novel where you are supposed to embroil yourself within the protagonist's confusion. If you are not yourself bewildered by the ever-expanding and simultaneously, ever-constricting, circles of characters and influence, then you are not really enjoying the novel as is intended.
Varg Veum becomes, then, something of a cipher. Because he is there to observe, he is not really there to imprint his personality onto either the proceedings, the other characters, or even the text itself. He is neither a charismatic nor uncharismatic fellow – he simply is. This attribute – or, more accurately, this lack of attributes – can be an advantage, for it allows the reader to press themselves against Veum and, in effect, 'become' the detective.
The unfortunate consequence of Veum's lack of personality means we have passages such as this: “Cathrine was fair-haired and attractive and as fresh to the job as I had been in 1970. 'No' didn't exist in her vocabulary, at least not in a professional context. As for her private life, I hadn't gone there yet.” and this, “The threads going back to 1974 were even stronger than they had seemed even a few hours ago.” These are clumsy sentences, the last in particular, and they are lacking in personality. In short – Varg Veum is bland, though perhaps Staalesen did not quite intend him that way. There are indications that other characters strongly dislike him, and some find him immediately attractive, but this is told to us – we never really see it, and we can never properly believe it.
The novel becomes entirely the plot and, if as a reader you enjoy complicated mysteries involving several layers of family, friends, businessmen and acquaintances, then The Consorts of Death certainly fits the bill. If not, then not. An interesting side-note to this, however, is the social awareness displayed by virtually all of the characters, and indeed Staalesen's gentle examination of the Norwegian welfare state. To American readers, the casual acceptance of a lot of the government procedures, institutions, and intrusions, will come as something as a shock, though more shocking will be the acceptance of it by everyone from police, to drug dealers, to lawyers, to farmers. For Australian readers the difference is less, though we are not as entangled within the welfare state mentality as Norway. Regardless, Staalesen's criticism is light, but both sides are fairly displayed. While it never becomes anything approaching a prominent aspect of the novel, these ideas are present, and add to the complexity of the novel. They also add much needed depth, a depth which unfortunately Varg Veum himself is unable to provide.
For all that, Varg Veum is a likable enough fellow. It's hard not to wish him well, though much of this comes from his sheer ordinariness in the face of increasing adversity. Jan Egil, too, becomes by turns a mysterious then sympathetic fellow, and though we are never quite sure of him, we want the best for him, too. We remember him as a frightened child, and this touch from early in the novel gains importance as the story progresses. Only a small handful of Staalesen's at least thirteen-novel series have been translated into English; Consorts of Death is a welcome addition to the canon of crime novels. It is certainly different from the 'home grown' English-language equivalents, and worth seeking out if only for that.