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The Consorts of Death, by Gunnar Staalesen

Where the blood always runs cold

In what is turning out to be a bumper year for Scandinavian crime fiction, The Consorts of Death by Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen is a very topical offering. In this stark story of a boy neglected by a drug-addict mother and her violent boyfriend, who is placed in foster care, we meet "Johnny Boy" in four decisive years.

The events that seal his fate in 1970, 1974, 1984 and 1995 are described with the social commitment and genuine concern that has become Staalesen's trademark. Death seems to be following in Johnny's footsteps from the tender age of six, when his foster father is found with a broken neck. The boy, with a catatonic look, utters only the words, "Mummy did it." When his next set of foster parents are found brutally murdered a decade later, the general assumption that this is a child beyond redemption is so strong that nobody will give him the benefit of doubt.

Private investigator Varg Veum, who meets "Johnny Boy" while working for the social services, is the only one who will not take it all at face value. To him the coincidences are too great, and too many people involved are connected in some way. By the end, the "whodunit" may not come as a great surprise, but the author keeps up the tension.

This is the 13th of Staalesen's 16 books about Veum. Arcadia pledges to publish them all; let's hope in Don Bartlett's customarily flawless translation. Often compared to Raymond Chandler, Staalesen has been credited with introducing social realism into crime fiction through his critical commentary on our times. He gets to the heart of the matter with an almost excessive use of dialogue: a giveaway of his time with the theatre in Bergen. With his novels translated into 15 languages, Staalesen is another fine representative of Scandinavian crime fiction, a genre widely appreciated in Europe, albeit one often set in forbidding surroundings that reinforce the false impression of Scandinavia as a very bleak place indeed