Hardboiled with a soft core: crime fiction from the North

It’s not just the capital cities in Europe which provide a photogenic noir backdrop to hardboiled crime fiction. Gunnar Staalesen’s lone wolf detective Varg Veum operates in the northern climes of Bergen in Norway, while John Harvey’s DI Charlie Resnick battles increasingly violent incidents in … well, maybe Nottingham is not quite that far north, if I’m to be honest, only about 130 miles north of London. Both of these strong, silent types are now nearing retirement, so they are showing a more sensitive (or perhaps just more vulnerable) side of themselves.

inheritwindGunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind (transl. Don Bartlett)

Who’d have thought that wind farms and ecology can lead to murderous intent? An ageing Varg Veum proposes to his girlfriend but shows no signs of slowing down otherwise. He still seems able to run and fight his way out of trouble along with the rest of them, while his ability to outsmart his adversary, his tendency to make irreverent quips and cheeky retorts, his talent for getting into trouble remain undiminished. But he is also more self-aware, more likely to recognise his mistakes and try to repair them. And he blames himself for the events and actions which led to his girlfriend being in a coma at the start of the book.

However, despite the thrills and plot twists, the novel is not all about action: readers will find thoughtful characterisation and topical social and economic concerns which are so often linked to Scandinavian crime fiction.

vargveumNot all of the Varg Veum novels have been translated into English, and certainly not in the right order, but I remember reading Staalesen a few years back and thinking his stubborn, wisecrack-filled hero reminded me of Arjouni’s Kayankaya or Harry Bosch. A well-paced, thrilling plot, the usual topical social concerns we have come to expect from Staalesen’s confident pen. The author is a classic in his own country: there is even a statue of Varg Veum leaning against a wall and staring moodily into the distance in Bergen. And I can imagine Varg attending the Bergen Jazz Festival, perhaps together with the detective featured below…

CiHandJohn Harvey: Cold in Hand

John Harvey is an immensely prolific writer, and his jazz-influenced Charlie Resnick series has received numerous awards and high critical praise. I am a newcomer to his work, but I could not help admiring his strong, muscular, lean and yet very poetic prose. A detective of Polish origin who loves cats, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk? Count me in!

Charlie gets pulled back into frontline policing as gang violence with smuggled weapons escalates in Nottingham. Fellow police officer (and lover/nearly fiancée) Lynn tries to break up a street fight and gets caught in a shooting, in which one teenage girl dies. The girl’s father publicly accuses her of putting his daughter’s life at risk and Charlie and Lynn find themselves struggling to reconcile their personal beliefs with their professional lives.

Life happens – sometimes it is cosy and everyday, sometimes it is brutal and painful, just like real life. Harvey is a master at rendering both the comfort of the common-place and the shudder of deep grief. I am full of admiration for the economy of his prose, capable of conveying so much emotion.

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover John Harvey as a crime writer. I was a regular reader of his old blog (now closed) and his poetry, but he still blogs occasionally here about poetry, music and various other book-related themes.