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COLD HEARTS by Gunnar Staalesen: Book Review

I don’t think of Bergen, Norway as a place with a lot of criminal activity.  But there’s apparently enough crime and abuse to keep private detective Varg Veum busy.

Varg has just recovered from a life-threatening attack, one which killed his client, and he’s still feeling a bit vulnerable.  So when he’s approached by Hege Jensen, his son’s childhood friend, he’s wary of taking her on as a client, especially given the case she wants him to investigate.

Hege’s friend Maggi Monsen has been missing for three days.  Hege won’t go to the police, she tells Varg, because “…you know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi.”  By “people like me and Maggi,” Hege means prostitutes.  Varg is forced to agree with her assessment, so a bit reluctantly he sets out to search for the missing woman.

Varg’s first action shows him the dangers surrounding the two women.  He gets the key to Maggi’s apartment from Hege, but aside from a small photo album he finds nothing of interest there.  He’s about to leave when he hears a key inserted into the lock and two men enter.  They present themselves as the owners of Maggi’s apartment, having come for her rent, but it’s obvious to the detective that they are her pimps.  And to underscore their message that finding Maggi is none of Varg’s business, one of the men cuts a sharp line with a knife from Varg’s ear to his collarbone.

Determined not to be stopped by the threats and the attack, Varg finds out that the two men are Kjell Malthus and his knife-wielding assistant, Rolf.  Kjell is a lawyer who runs an investment firm, and Varg finds another connection between Kjell and Maggi besides prostitution.  Maggi’s brother KG has been imprisoned for years for the murder of Kjell’s brother.

Maggi was one of three children of dysfunctional parents: the father was an abusive alcoholic and the mother a depressed, passive woman.  Sent to school without lunch and looking malnourished, the children came to the attention of Bergen’s social services.  But before anything could be done officially, a committee of five friends of the family intervened with the intention of making certain that the children were not removed from their home.  The committee promised to provide food and assistance to the family, anything to keep the family together.  But in the end, given the history of two of the three children, was this the best outcome?

Cold Hearts takes the reader into the seamy side of a small Norwegian city, showing how the strains of child abuse, incest, and hypocrisy follow its victims and its practitioners throughout life.  Not a story for the faint-of-heart, the novel is extremely well-written, with characters and settings that bring the story to life.

Gunnar Staalesen is a well-known novelist throughout Scandinavia.  A statue of Varg Veum stands outside the Strand Hotel in Bergen; a photo of Gunnar Staalesen and his literary creation are available at this Google web site.

There are several translated sites about the author on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.