Gunnar Staalesen is Norwegian, born in Bergen, 1947. He has published a huge number of books, among them an excellent series of crime fiction books starring Varg Veum, a private investigator in Bergen. The first book in this series was published in 1977, and the most recent in Norwegian a coiuple of months ago! Varg Veum is a kind of Scandinavian Philip Marlowe. He is a former social worker turned private detective.
Gunnar Staalesen’s books have been translated into 12 languages. A number of the books have been made into movies – The Varg Veum Mysteries, recently shown on PBS in the United States. The Writing on the Wall was originally published in Norwegian in 1995.
In The Writing on the Wall, Varg Veum returns from the funeral of his ex-wife’s most recent husband to find the distressed mother of missing 16 year old girl Torild, waiting to see him. Usually, when women are waiting to see Veum, something bad has happened or will happen.
Also, Bergen is buzzing with rumors about the death of Judge Brandt after he is found dead in a hotel room wearing flimsy female underwear.
Varg Veum starts digging. He looks into the last known sightings of Torild and her few friends. They seem to have spent time at or around a local amusement arcade. What initially seems pretty normal, rebellious behavior seems to be covering up something more sinister, and Veum soon receives death threats. Then Torild is found dead.
Gradually what appears as the result of Veum’s digging is a thriving teenage prostitution scene in the city. Varg is also convinced that there is a connection to the death of Judge Brandt. Before long, Varg finds himself deep within the seedy underbelly of Bergen’s criminal world. Not his favorite spot, but, on the other hand, not a spot he is totally unfamiliar with either.
The Writing on the Wall is a detective novel you like or don’t like. To a large extent this has to do with the character of Varg Veum. The novel itself is good, it is well written, and Staalesen is great with dialogues, but it doesn’t really excite you. However, if like me you have read a number of Staalesen’s novels and love Varg Veum, it is a very enjoyable book. And generally, I think readers that like Veum will also like this book. But Veum isn’t all that likeable! He is a straight, believable hero, to some extent resembling Philip Marlowe, but he is a little boring and simpleminded to some readers. Personally, I like him because he is pretty low key for a guy from Bergen, and because he is a little bit shabby. I do recommend it.