Gunnar Staalesen on the mystery of novels and nature


Writers from the Scandinavian countries, as well as Iceland or Finland, often grouped under the name Nordic Noir, are frequently asked: what is the difference between your books and classic crime novels? The usual answer for many of us will be: the presence of nature. Even if our novels are quite personal and different from each other, they all take place in a setting where nature is always present.

Classic thrillers or thrillers are often set in big cities, like London, Los Angeles, and Paris, or in quaint little towns in the countryside. In Norway, there are not really big cities. Even in the capital, Oslo, you can admire the green hills that surround it while standing in the very center of the city.

In my own city, Bergen, we have our famous seven mountains close to the center, our old harbor and the fjord leading to it. There’s a funicular five minutes from the fish market that takes you to Mount Fløyen in six minutes, and from there you can go straight into the forest or higher into the mountains and take a three-hour walk along a ridge to the next mountain, Ulriken.

If my private detective, Varg Veum, drives north from Bergen, it will take him less than 30 minutes to reach a bridge crossing a fjord and further north fjords and high mountains await him in a landscape created by the ice leaving 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. In Norway, you always have nature around you, and it marks you.

We live in a time when the climate is changing, and this also has consequences for nature. When I wrote my novel Bitter Flowers in 1991, now published this year in the UK, people were already starting to worry about climate change, and all the poisons that human beings leave in nature through their garbage, both from private homes and industry. Ecology was a term that had just entered the language and young people took part in large demonstrations against the government’s policy on pollution. A similar protest is the backdrop to the puzzles Varg Veum tries to solve in this novel.

In 2010 I published the novel We Shall Inherit the Wind (2015 in the UK), which was inspired by a more visible conflict, related to the same issues, when wind farms are placed in the wilderness, changing the ancient landscape, killing birds and insects. , make noise – but at the same time produce green energy, which is important for the climate. Right now I’m writing my 20th novel about Varg Veum, in which salmon farming along Norway’s long coast will play an important role, another conflict between green philosophy and money.

For me, nature has always been a source of inspiration, both in my private life and in my writing. But I am not alone in this case. Many writers draw inspiration from their local nature, and this is of course not unique to Nordic writers.

One of the authors who has inspired me the most as a writer is one of the American masters, Ross Macdonald. In his novel The Underground Man (1971), a large bushfire on the California coast plays an important role in the plot. The same is true of the great oil spill on the same coast in Sleeping Beauty (1973), which continues throughout the development of the novel. Another American detective writer who has described his local nature with great insight is James Lee Burke, floating through the swamps of Louisiana. Her novel The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007) is set during the catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The Dry (2016) by Australian writer Jane Harper transports the reader to a region arid and drought-stricken in Australia. Even normal everyday nature, like the windswept northeast coast of Scotland in Ian Rankin’s A Song for the Dark Times (2020), can influence the atmosphere of a novel.

In the work of all these writers, it should be noted that the setting itself becomes a character in the stories. Catastrophic fires, droughts and hurricanes, threats from wind turbines and oil rigs, floods and the dumping of oil and toxic materials in nature; these are all important elements in the stories these writers want to tell.

Writers have always been known for asking questions, for challenging the established customs of society. As an epitaph to his latest novel, Ian Rankin quotes Bertolt Brecht: “In dark times / Will there be singing too? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About dark times. Classical Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote, “I’m just asking the questions. My job is not to answer.

Authors are no wiser than their readers. My belief is that if you ask the right questions, readers are more than capable of finding the right answers. But the questions have to be asked, and for many writers that’s just the central challenge for themselves: finding those questions, painting them clearly enough for readers to understand the issues and make their own choices.

I have been writing about Varg Veum since the 1970s. During all these years it has reflected changes in society, weather and climate. He made his comments, in his sardonic way, and his sympathy is with the younger generations, the people who must survive the mistakes made by us and past generations. But he is not a prophet. Like all of us, he looks to the future with anxiety and can only cross his fingers for better solutions for all of humanity in the years to come. The future is – as always – a mystery waiting to be solved.
Bitter Flowers by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, is published by Orenda Books


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