Staalesen, Gunnar – ‘Yours Until Death’ (translated by Margaret Amassian)
Paperback: 332 pages (July 2010) Publisher: Arcadia ISBN: 1906413703
Originally published in Norway in 1979 and first translated into (and published in) English in 1993, YOURS UNTIL DEATH is an early volume in a series featuring Varg Veum, a not very successful private eye. As the novel opens, Varg, whose name was sarcastically said by his father to mean “Outlaw”, is missing his ex-wife and son and lamenting his impecunious state when an eight-year-old boy, Roar, comes bursting into his office. Roar has had his bicycle stolen by a local gang of teenage thugs and has looked in the phone book for a private detective. He lives alone with his mother, Wenche, and does not want her to try to recapture the bike because the thugs beat up and molested the mother of one of Roar’s friends who tried to remonstrate with them for an earlier misdeed.
Perhaps because Roar reminds Varg of his own estranged son, he decides to take on the case, quickly tracking the gang to a hut in the woods and retrieving the boy’s bike. Roar lives in a large tower block and invites Varg home after his rather bruising success. Hence, Varg meets the alluring Wenche, and learns her story, as well as discovering for himself what life is like in the grim flats, where most of the families have been abandoned by the fathers, and the teenage gang, headed up by the (allegedly) psychopathic Joker, rule.
Plagued by melancholy and a sense of sympathy for the underdog, Varg begins to dig into the circumstances of the tower-block dwellers, interviewing the truculent Gunnar, the leader of the local youth club and the only person who seems to have any influence over the boys, and Joker’s mother Hildur, now an old drunk living on her memories.
Soon, the unstable situation blows up into a real crime, and the police become involved. Varg and Joker are both witnesses, and based on his previous experiences with the police, Varg manages to infiltrate himself into the investigation. In the best traditions of detective fiction, he meets all the people who know the victim and the accused, listens to their stories and broods about what it all means. By the end, ours and Varg’s prejudices have been taken out, aired, turned around and, after Varg’s dogged persistence at uncovering every aspect to the lives of the small cast of characters however inconsequential, the identity and motivation of the criminal are revealed- leaving a sense of sadness and missed opportunity, as well as sheer, unnecessary waste.
I found this book a particularly interesting snapshot of society. It was written in the 1970s – Varg himself was born in 1946 and spends much of the novel musing on how life in Norway has changed since the end of World War Two, and how society is disintegrating. Many of his thoughts mirror those of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whose Martin Beck novels, set in Sweden, were written at about the same time or slightly earlier. Another difference between this and many private-eye novels is that Varg (and other characters) are verbose. Varg in particular is the opposite of laconic – the author spends quite some pages on exposition, both of Varg’s own thoughts about his own past, and in conversations: whenever two characters meet, they seem to spend a lot of time exchanging detailed life-stories and explanations for past actions. Perhaps this makes the book slightly dated, but even so I very much enjoyed the novel, on the strength of which I have purchased the two (much) later books in the series that have recently been translated into English.