Bitter Flowers by Gunnar Staalesen

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Bitter Flowers by Gunnar Staalesen

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: This is very readable 80's Scandi Noir, with a scenic, bleak setting and a dark, twisting crime trail to unravel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 276 Date: January 2022
Publisher: Orenda Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1913193089

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Varg Veum is a Norwegian Private Investigator who has just finished a stint in rehab and is now returning to work. However, the quiet job he's supposedly taken on caretaking someone's house quickly turns into a murder investigation, and a mystery around a missing woman. Varg finds himself not only investigating these, but also looking into an old, cold case of an eight year old girl who disappeared one night and was never found. Somehow, these disparate cases appear to be linked, but what is the link, and how can Varg possibly unravel the truth?

Having binge-watched Scandi Noir drama, The Bridge and fallen in love with police detective Saga Noren, I was just in the mood for more. I hadn't read any Staalesen novels previously and I think, honestly, this book would have been better if I'd known anything about Varg before I started. I sensed there was more back story behind the character, and starting at this point with him did feel like I'd been plonked into the middle of his life without knowing who on earth he is or what's going on! So, whilst it's very readable, and still a good story, my top tip would be to at least read a couple of other Varg stories I think. I'm hoping to go back and find out more about it, as I do like him as a character and I was intrigued about his story.

Still, if you do just launch into the series like me, it isn't completely overwhelming and you can grasp things pretty quickly! There's a lot of scene setting, and you feel like you form a good impression of the town and surrounding area. It does feel very 'period' in some ways, there are certain attitudes towards women, and descriptions of women that jar with contemporary life. But it was written in the 1980's I believe, and once you have that in mind then the characters make more sense. Of course, that won't be for everyone, but I found I just let go of any personal grumpiness about the portrayal of women, and just went with the story.

The book is quite dry, and dark, but it didn't feel as bleak as I thought it might. I think the translation was good, as nothing jarred, and I felt the story flowed well throughout. It felt easy to read, and I felt that draw of wanting to read just a little more, and a little more again to try to find out what was going on. As I mentioned before, it is old fashioned, and the style lacks warmth, but I felt that helped to instil the setting, giving it that kind of grey filter that the Nordic dramas often have.

I was intrigued throughout as to how everything was going to tie together in the end, and I mostly didn't see things coming. It had a good mix of pace, with exciting parts and then slower exposition too. I enjoyed the Norwegian setting, and you can imagine the craggy coastlines, or thick forests as you read. The tangle of characters doesn't become confusing, and the smattering of Norwegian words throughout just adds to the flavour of the story. I'd like to read another by Staalesen, and hopefully by going back to the earlier Varg stories that have been translated, I'll develop more of a feel for exactly who he is as a P.I. (Though I suspect that I won't actually like him very much!)

You might also like to try The Killing Bay by Chris Ould, or for something that pokes a bit of fun at Scandi Noir, you could try The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

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