Review: Gunnar Staalesen – The Consorts of Death

After attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival last month I was determined to read one of Gunnar Staalesen’s books. They’re not easy to find in the UK. His publisher, Arcadia Books, has recently been bought out of liquidation and the company is likely to be relaunched next year. It remains to be seen if Staalesen will still be on their list. However most of this writer’s English translations are easily available from Abe Books and the consensus from a straw poll of other crime fiction bloggers was that I start with The Consorts of Death.

Private investigator Varg Veum receives a phone call from a former colleague from his days as a social worker. A boy that they have been involved with over the years is on the run after murdering a man, and he has a list of people who he believes has ruined his life. Varg Veum is on this list and he is warned that ‘Johnny Boy’ may be out to exact revenge. The book then goes back in time documenting each of Veum’s interactions with the disturbed child, from 1970 when the two year old is taken into care, in 1974 when a foster parent dies suddenly and in the 1980s when Johnny Boy is the suspect in a double shooting. Finally the book returns to the present day and Veum grasps the truth that has been alluding him.

The book is the thirteenth novel in the Varg Veum series and the  protagonist has a solidity about him which is almost certainly a reflection of his development over previous books. It’s an interesting idea, that of a social worker turned detective and I thought the historic scenes, of Veum working for social services, very convincing. Consorts of Death was originally published in Swedish in 2006 which I found quite surprising as the story had a slightly dated feel to it, although this could have been because much of the narrative took place in the 1970s.

The plot was an interesting one and told with an admiral restraint. No overblown scenes or melodramatic dramas but a solid story told well. I could see a clear link between some of the issues highlighted in the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö Martin Beck series and those highlighted here. Sadly the issue of child neglect and the failures of foster care have a universal resonance.

I’m going to try and track down other books by Staalsen and hope that some day the whole of the Varg Veum series reaches an English audience. Consorts of Death was translated by the excellent Don Bartlett.

I bought my copy of the book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Petrona and in the Independent.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Events

One of the great things about moving back to the UK is being able to attend some of the wonderful book events that take place across the country. On Thursday I attended the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a ten day event that draws an eclectic list of writers, which this year included JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Pat Barker.

Limiting myself to an afternoon, I attended two interesting sessions in the picturesque Imperial Square venue where the rain hammered down on the roof of our tents. Both events (of course) had  a crime fiction element and gave some interesting insights into aspects of the genre. Here’s a brief summary of the two events.


Funerals and Mourning: Panel: Thomas Enger, Tim Lott, Kitty Aldridge and Catherine Arnold. Moderated by Nicolette Jones.

The panelists introduced works of literature that contained, in their opinion, moving and thought-provoking depictions of funerals. There were readings from Trollope, Roth and Updike and from Enger’s Burned.

In the ensuing discussion, Kitty Aldridge made an interesting observation that in literature, while death is expected to shock readers, funerals are often used for comical or ironic effect.

A question from the audience encouraged the panel to consider death in the context of the harm we inflict on each other. Tim Lott agreed that fiction can appeal to the sadistic nature in ourselves, although somewhat controversially suggested us crime readers had a deep-seated desire to commit a murder. I shall say no more….


Nordic Noir: Panel: Barry Forshaw, Don Bartlett, Thomas Enger, Gunnar Staalesen

For us fans of Scandinavian crime fiction, this panel was an interesting discussion on the popularity of Norwegian crime novels and the issues surrounding translated fiction. On the panel were two crime writers (GS and TE) whose works have been translated into a wide number of languages, one translator (Don Bartlett) best known for his translations of  Jo Nesbo’s books and Barry Forshaw who has written an excellent guide to Scandinavian crime fiction, Death in a Cold Climate.

The panel began by discussing how titles often change during translation. Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole book The Bat, which has just been published, was originally titled The Bat Man which was not felt appropriate for an English speaking audience (the second book will be called The Cockroach). The Norwegian title of Thomas Enger’s first book translated into Apparent Death which was changed by his publisher to Burned. He came up with the subsequent titles of Pierced (book 2) and Scarred (forthcoming book 3) himself.

In relation to the credit that translators get for their work, DB suggested that while it’s nice to be invisible, it can be galling when no mention is made of their contribution at all in reviews etc. TE likes it when his translators ask significant questions about the subtleties of his text and worries if they have translated without any contact with him whatsoever. GS can read some of the languages that his books are translated into but doesn’t check-up on the translations. Both GS and TE agreed that it was a significant moment when their works were translated into English, the language of many of the classic crime writers.

DB said he read other crime books and sometimes found interesting phrases which helped him with his own translations. Translations are made in collaboration with editors who usually have the final say over specific words although he does feel responsibility to reflect the language of the original. Expletives in his opinion were notoriously hard to translate as they often have different degrees of offensiveness in a language.

The popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction was attributed to the influence of Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, then Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Scandinavian countries have changed over this period  though and the panel agreed that the mass killings that took place in Breivik are likely to have an impact on crime fiction coming out of Norway.


An interesting two panels and as usual, having promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books to contribute to my TBR mountain, I came away with Catherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead, and The Bat which I started on the train home. There were no books by Gunnar Staalesen available for purchase although I probably would have been stuck where to start. Any recommendations?