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.