Fallen Angels by Gunnar Staalesen, vintage Nordic noir with masterful storytelling and not a terrible place to start if you’re new to him.
Tense, vivid and deeply unsettling, Fallen Angels is the spellbinding, award-winning thriller that secured Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost crime writers.
At the funeral of a former classmate, Bergen PI Varg Veum has an unexpected reunion with an old friend, Jakob Aasen, on a somber Norwegian December afternoon. After the funeral, they go club hopping together. Learning that Varg is a private investigator, Jakob confides in him about his estranged wife, Rebecca, and asks Varg to locate her as a favor. That complicates the rekindled friendship since Varg has not never truly gotten over Rebecca, his first love. But he agrees to look for her. When someone murders another mutual friend, Varg realizes something very odd is going on. He makes the connection between the victim, a former member of the same once-famous 1960s rock band which Jakob was a guitarist with and some other unnatural deaths. A quest to find a killer forces Veum to dig deep into his own past and darkest memories.
Set so far in the past in the 1980s, reading Fallen Angels, the third installment in the Varg Veum series, reminded me a little of Raymond Chandler’s novels and Varg Veum seemed a bit like a Norwegian Philip Marlowe. The novel is a slow-burn out of the gate, but quickly develops into an absorbing read. Staalesen masterfully pulls you deeper and deeper into the story with each chapter. Peering into the darker side of human nature creates an underlying feeling of tension that leaves the reader feeling unsettling as the dark secrets of the characters’ pasts emerge. With its cold, dark setting, emotional chilliness, and an overarching sense of despair expressed via a brutal murder-mystery plot, the book meets and exceeds what we expect from a Nordic thriller.
This isn’t an easy read emotionally. It’s an uncompromising examination of how human beings sometimes do the most inhuman things to each other, and how such events shape people for a lifetime. There’s almost a poetic, lyrical quality to Staalesen’s writing. His descriptions of the landscapes, expert use of juxtapositions and similes, and his fully rendered believable characters combine to produce an evocative sense of place.
This was my first book by Gunnar Staalesen. Because of the slow start, after the first dozen chapters I felt like I wouldn’t like this novel particularly. But by the time I reached the shocking reveal at the end, I pondered where Gunnar Staalesen has been all my life. How could I have missed reading him until now?
I highly recommend this powerful novel to anyone who enjoys a suspenseful crime mystery. Gunnar Staalesen is another welcome addition to my list of favorite Scandinavian crime fiction writers. I’ll be adding the other books in the Varg Veum series to my to be read pile.
I purchased a copy of the book used for this review.