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….
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.’
And during an uncomfortable conversation:
‘Wish I could say the same.’
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.’
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.
‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’
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.
The main picture is a shoe advert from 1977, and suggests a party very similar to the one going on in Bergen.