Wife Killers

Gunnar Staalesen, The Consorts of Death (Dødens Drabanter (2006), translated by Don Bartlett (2009))

Consorts of DeathHigh above the mountains, the moon had appeared, the earth’s pale consort, distant and alone in its eternal orbit around the chaos and turmoil below. It struck me that the moon wasn’t alone after all. There were many of us adrift and circling around the same chaos, the same turmoil, without being able to intervene or do anything about it. We were all consorts of death.

There are two things to notice about this entry in the Varg Veum series – first, it is the debut of Don Bartlett as translator; two, it is not set more or less contemporaneously with publication.

There have been various translators, but this is the first time characters call each other Herr or Fru or Frøken, presumably in order to convince us that this is Norway (which apparently doesn’t use them these days). I am also squinting at the book’s title, since I can’t immediate find Drabant* in translation, although I’ve found a Swedish occurrence where it seems to be closer to “bodyguard”/“protective guard”.

As to the setting, to be honest I only picked this up from the blurb, having started and been thrown by Cold Hearts. The opening is set in September 1995, a decade before writing, and presumably is a way around the problem that if Veug was born in about 1943 (I forget the precise date), then he’d be in his sixties by 2006.

Of course, detectives whether public or private age at odd speeds.

Given the erratic choice of translated titles, I’m not clear when this shift started, but in any case, this is a narrative mostly told in flashback, where Veum meets up with an old colleague, Cecilie, to discuss an old client from the 1970s, Johnny Boy. Veum had been involved with Johnny Boy being taken into care due to his addict mother, and their paths crossed again when his foster father is found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. A decade later, Veum is called in when Johnny Boy has taken a teenaged girl hostage and apparently killed both of his new foster parents. And once Johnny Boy is released from prison in the mid-1990s, he seems to have committed another murder and gunning for revenge on Veum.

In a sense, this book offers a prequel to the series – Veum is still a social worker in the earliest sections, but a curious one, and we see him taking on board the idea of being a private detective in the middle. One of the cops that he encounters is the to-be-retired Dankert Muus, as in The Writing on the Wall. The repeated possibility of others taking the blame for the deaths – one foster mother serves a prison sentence – is fascinating and, in a sense, it would be too obvious for Johnny Boy to be guilty … unless … well…

And, yet, I confess I was eyeing up blaming a certain character for everything by the time I was halfway through, with my second choice turning out to be involved in everything up to his self-satisfied neck. But I didn’t feel cheated, as I turned the pages towards a devastating ending.

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