editor's choice



Nordic Noir writer Gunnar Staalesen pays more than a nod to Raymond Chandler in his latest book, Big Sister, the twentieth featuring popular PI Varg Veum. The Little Sister (1949) was Chandler’s fifth book featuring Philip Marlowe.

‘I have a sentimental relationship with [The Little Sister],’ he says, ‘because it was the first one of Chandler’s that I read. After the first chapter I was sold. This was my way of writing, and I have been inspired by it ever since.’

And, indeed, there is something about the tone and mood of Staalesen’s work that sits closer to Chandler, Ross Macdonald – even Dashiell Hammett – than to his Scandinavian peers.

Big Sister finds Varg meeting his older half-sibling, Norma, for the first time. It’s not a total shock – he’s known about her since his mother’s death, but he’s never sought her out. Norma’s visit is not driven by sentiment though: her god-daughter’s gone missing in Bergen, Varg’s native city, and she wants him to find her.

On the face of things, the case is similar to many that Varg’s investigated before – the complication though this time is family.

Looking out of the window, I felt as if I was being dazzled, not by the sun but from the light from a past that I never wanted to relinquish, a childhood which had in some way made me and my half-sister the people we had become. The stamp your parents imprint on your brow is there forever, visible or not. You rarely get to know the secrets they take with them to the grave.”

Like Marlowe, Varg’s voice is calm, measured, his process methodical as he tries to track Emma’s movements. While the police don’t seem that concerned about her, Varg becomes increasingly so, his various leads seemingly coming to nothing.

Staalesen gives us a great sense of place, meticulously layering detail upon detail so that we, the reader, can imagine driving with Varg as he travels around Bergen and to Haugesund, where Norma lives, ferreting out information pertinent to the case. His dealings with Emma’s estranged, belligerent father lead Varg back to a sexual crime that took place decades before and to a group of bikers with criminal ties. And in typical noir tradition, the city Staalesen presents is dark, violence lurking around every corner.

Staalesen was reportedly embarrassed when fellow crime writer Jo Nesbø labelled him a ‘Nordic Chandler’ but going by Big Sister, a beautifully constructed book, almost poetic, at times, in description, it’s a well-earned title.


 Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen • June 2018 • Orenda • Paperback •  £8.99

See our interview with Gunnar Staalesen



Music: Ben Webster ‘Over the rainbow’; Jacques Brel, ‘Moribond‘ – listened to with a glass of aquavit


Acknowledgements: The quoted text is from Big Sister, p. 12 © Gunnar Staalesen 2016; English translation © Don Bartlett 2018. This review is published as part of a book tour. Thank you to Anne Cater for organising it and the publisher for providing a review copy. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Photograph © The Literary Shed 2018.


Also of interest: Elder’s last stand: John Harvey’s Body and Soul’; ‘Ian Ridley: The Literary Shed Q&A;John Fairfax: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘;  ‘Finlay’s last stand – Matt Johnson’s End Game‘; ‘Letters of Note‘; 20 books this summer challenge.


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