Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

published 2016

translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

This is another version of a post I did for the Petrona Remembered website in memory of the still-missed Petrona, Maxine Clark. The book has also just won the Petrona prize. You can see the other version of the post on the site, and also look at other recommendations for great books while you are there….

Where Roses Never Die 3

It was New Year’s Eve 1976 and midnight had passed. It had been bitingly cold for Bergen, the thermometer had sunk to well below zero. All the adults were gathered in the function room in the architect’s house for the annual New Year party. The youngsters were asleep and the eldest children had been sent to bed, now the fireworks were over…

Champagne corks were popping in the function room as well. The food was eaten, they had danced, and spirits were high when Terje tapped his glass at around half past twelve. He kept tapping but it was only when Vibeke started clapping her hands beside him that he had the group’s attention.

Clothes maketh the man, the proverb went, but it was usually the opposite, people chose an outfit that reflected their character…

Randi herself and Nils were dressed in black, him in a black suit with a blue tie, her in ‘a little black number’, so short that she showed a maximum of what she knew was her best feature, her attractive legs. When she had danced with Tor earlier in the evening, he had patted her on the bottom and said the same: ‘The best legs in the room, Randi…’

‘We’ve decided it’s time for a party game,’ Terje said from the podium once he finally had everyone’s attention.

‘We?’ said Vibeke, looking at him askance.

‘Listen to him! Listen to him!’ Tor shouted.

‘We’re calling this the New Year games,’ Terje continued. 

Everyone was attentive now. This was something new.

commentary: I picked the right time to read this one. Compared with my crime fiction friends, I’m a novice when it comes to Scandi books, but a review over at Reactions to Reading convinced me to try this one – Bernadette, the proprietor, is always reliable. She doesn’t just write great reviews, she also matches my tastes. (Secretly I enjoy her slamming reviews of books she doesn’t like almost more than the good ones.)

Anyway, she did a good job selling this, and unsurprisingly I loved it – and then I surfaced from reading it to find it had won the Petrona Award. That’s the literary prize founded in honour of our much-missed friend Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and died a few years ago. The award is for a book she would have liked, and I think she’d have loved this one.

Varg Veum is a private investigator in the tradition and spirit of the great US crime books: maybe washed up, has a messy personal life, is an alcoholic, has made enemies. It is 2002, and he is asked to look again at the case of a 3-year-old girl who went missing from outside her house 25 years earlier. One of the remaining witnesses died in a strange and random robbery attempt, and the child’s mother was reminded that she is running out of time, a statute of limitations is about to impose itself.

There was a group of families living in a housing co-op: all friends, most with children. Many of the relationships didn’t survive the era of the disappearance, though Veum turns up other reasons for that. Slowly he works his way through the list of those involved, calling in favours and following instincts and intuition – his own and others. Norwegian life and ways are laid out for us in a most appealing way. The people are varied, some good some bad, all distinctive in their characters. Facts are teased out till eventually Veum reaches the truth. Sometimes, as in the extract above, we see the events of 25 years before through the other characters’ eyes.

There is some great dialogue – like this exchange with a retired colleague
‘But if there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me.’ 
'Yes, if you haven’t gone to the fjord, that is.’ 

‘I never go so far that I can’t find my way back.’ 

‘Wish I could say the same.’

And during an uncomfortable conversation:
Like two experienced synchronised swimmers we raised our cups of coffee at the same time, staring furiously at each other. Neither of us liked what he saw and we didn’t try to conceal it.
And sadly Veum breaks his resolution not to drink:
‘You can allow yourself one glass.’ 

‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’
The little housing co-op is an important part of the book: much is made of the coloured houses, the closeness of the group, the function room where the New Year’s Eve party above is being held, the atmosphere and undercurrents of the group.
The five houses had been built in a kind of horseshoe shape. The tall two-storey facades, painted in strong contrasting colours, and the gently pitched roofs to the back betrayed their 1970s origins. The house forming the base of the horseshoe was the biggest. It had been painted red, as was one of the others; two were yellow and one was white.
And pictures of Bergen houses suggest that these colours were not unusual.

Where Roses Never Die 1Where Roses Never Die 2

I thought it was a marvellous book, I loved it. I’m faintly concerned by the fact that this was the 19th book about Veum: I don’t have time to commit to a new series! But it would be quite wrong to take against Staalesen (or his translator Don Bartlett, who seems very good) on those grounds. The tropes of this book are familiar, we’ve all read many books with similar setups, similar PIs, similar families, similar investigations. But Staalesen takes the ingredients and makes something magical from them, something very different. He surely deserves this prize.

The main picture is a shoe advert from 1977, and suggests a party very similar to the one going on in Bergen.


  1. I really do appreciate your contributing to Petrona Remembered, Moira. And I'm quite sure Maxine would have loved this book.

    1. It was my pleasure, Margot: I was proud to be part of the project.

  2. This was a very good book, and I'm glad it won the Petrona Award. Maxine Clarke would have liked it. She recommended Staalesen's books frequently, and I wish I had started reading the series then.
    The next in the series is reportedly quite good.

    1. I am glad to hear that Kathy, and I will certainly be reading more.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it Moira. Despite your selling it to me, I'll steer clear, for now at least. A few too many books already.

    1. You read a different one by him didn't you? I might look that one up next.

  4. Sounds great, thanks Moira. been ages since I read a Scandi and this sounds like just the ticket!

    1. I'm not a huge fan of Scandi, but this one really grabbed me - I'm not sure exactly why!

  5. I read one (maybe his first) and had my doubts - but this sounds really good.

    1. Apparently only a few of them have been translated, so there's not much choice, but this one I very much liked, and am looking forward to trying more...

  6. I probably would enjoy this but it is one I will wait a while for. And hope to find some earlier ones in the meantime.

    1. I think you would like this one - proper PI novel - but you might be stymied by the translation challenges because I know you like to read books in order! No chance here, I think, unless your Norwegian is good...

  7. There is more character development in this book than in much of Nordic noir. Perhaps that's why you liked it.

    1. Oh I haven't read enough of it to know that Kathy - thanks for an interesting suggestion. Yes, I do like character development...


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