Welcome to the Norway of Gunnar Staalesen


The book trail is  excited to open up 2014 with a writer who is slowly being translated into English. A Norwegian crime writer who is extremely popular in his home country is gradually being introduced to the English speaking world and bringing the gritty streets of Norway and its underbelly to a whole new audience. Think you know Scandinavian crime fiction? Think again.


Cold Hearts is set in Bergen, Norway. However, the streets of Bergen in Staalesen’s book are not the ones you would want to walk down. Varg Veum, the private investigator, takes the reader on a journey of exploitation, inherent threat and a cold hard journey towards the truth. And all in chillingly heart wrenching real time.

Even the protagonist name – Varg is threatening and cold – Varg means “Wolf” – His full name translates as “Wolf-in-a-holy-place,” in old Norse  – an outsider in other words which describes any private eye on the oustskirts of society in the perfect way. So, a perfect guide to this harsh cold environment.


Story in a nutshell –

A prostitute is concerned about the disappearance of one of her friends, Margrethe, or Maggi as she is known.  On the night she had disappeared, Maggi had refused a trick from a curb crawler and had fled the car in terror. Another prostitute who effectively takes her place is badly beaten up.

Varg is tasked with finding out what happened to her and who on earth was in that car. His background as a social worker has given him a lot of experience in dealing with families of difficult circumstances – Maggi’s brother who has been in prison for many years has also now disappeared. Then a prostitute ends up dead.

Varg must quickly unravel the past to find the answers.

Scandinavian crime fiction tends to concentrate on socio-political issues woven into the narrative and Cold Hearts is no exception. Norway’s welfare society comes under close scrutiny.


Strandgaten  - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Strandgaten – image courtesy of Wikipedia


A book trail thorough Norway

In his native Norway and indeed in much of Scandinavia as a whole, Staalesen is a popular author. He puts extreme importance on how a person’s surroundings and society can fail and mould a person. The city’s streets for example are as much of a character in the book as any of the people. In fact Staalesen has such a sense of place that the city comes to life and places the role of the protagonist itself –

Strandgaten is one of Bergen’s oldest streets. From one century to the next, it has wound its way from Torgallmenningen to Nordnes….

A more pretty side to Nordnes - image courtesy of Wikipedia
A more pretty side to Nordnes – image courtesy of Wikipedia

You can basically take this book and allow it to guide yourself around Bergen itself –

Strandgaten, is where the private eye’s office is situated for example and there is a now a life-size sculpture of the long-haired detective there for readers and newcomers to see the man for themselves. Talk about the book coming to life!


The man himself standing in his doorway in Bergen
The man himself standing in his doorway in Bergen


I sauntered down the stairs and back into the most sterile part of Strandgaten. In the quarter between Nykirken Chuch and Tollbodallmenningen there was little to feat your eyes on apart from the sale at the vinmonopel on the opposite side…


Another cultural viewpoint is just around the corner –


Edvard Grieg  - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Edvard Grieg – image courtesy of Wikipedia

A plaque on the wall beyond announced that Edvard Grieg’s childhood home was here..

Edvard Grieg was a Norwegian composer and pianist who died in 1907


Cold Hearts portrays the streets vividly. Its sense of place are used to maximum effect when talking about the red light area –

In the 1950s and 60s, the most obvious signs of street activity were in Strandgaten. After the number of cars increased and the circle of clients became more mobile, business moved out further to Nordnes, to C. Sundts gate, where there is still an abundance of freelance working girls to be seen from early after noon to late at night.

But the contrast of the more pleasant side of Bergen soon returns with descriptions from Varg as he wanders the streets on his way to a meeting –

Ludvig Holberg - a writer and philosopher - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Ludvig Holberg – a writer and philosopher – image courtesy of Wikipedia
The fish market - not all of the blood and gore comes from the gutted fish..
The fish market – not all of the blood and gore comes from the gutted fish..


I crossed the fish market before the Narvesen kiosk had opened. On Vagsallmenning a copper green Ludvig Holberg stood steadfastly staring north west.



Then back to the gritty reality –

Bergen’s Outreach Centre is located in Stromgaten, across the street from the stately old Lysverket building.

In fact many of Bergen’s most popular places to visit are listed in the Visit Bergen website. Of course here you will see a much more pleasant side to the city….



The translation is by the excellent Don Bartlett. He is well known in Translator circles for having worked with Jo Nesbø and Per Petterson amongst others. It’s largely thanks to him that English readers can now read Cold Hearts and enter a world of the gritty realism of Norway’s backstreets.

The translator plays a crucial role in widening an author’s readership and Gunnar Staalesen, thanks to the skill of Don Bartlett can be asssured that the sense and emotion of his book is deftly handled.

This is a gritty, cold hard world that you now are entering but it’s an interesting one…

If you have not discovered Scandinavian crime fiction or think you have read them all, pick up Cold Hearts and you will see something you have never seen before.


2 thoughts on “Welcome to the Norway of Gunnar Staalesen

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