Big Sister

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by Gunnar Staalesen; translated by Don Bartlett

On a wan November day, a new client comes to private investigator Varg Veum.

Norma Bakkevik, 76, wants his help finding her missing goddaughter Emma Hagland, 19. She moved to Bergen to go to nursing school, but has been unreachable for the past three weeks.

Varg takes notes. It seems a straightforward case. Then Norma drops a surprise on him: she’s his half-sister.

“What she told me awakened something I had long repressed and opened the door to a darkened attic of family secrets whose existence I had never suspected.”

A week later, his new-found half-sister is dead. It looks like an accident, but it could be something more sinister.

Varg’s search for Emma Hagland is meticulous and systematic, by turn plodding, repetitive and hopeless. The police aren’t interested. Emma’s landlord and elusive flatmates claim to know nothing.

Emma’s father, Robert Høie Hansen, a man she hadn’t seen since she was two, admits that she came to visit but says he refused to talk to her. Her half-brother eventually reveals they exchanged emails but denies knowing anything about her disappearance. Her best friend Åsa Lavik, studying in Berlin, has no information either.

But they’re all misleading Varg.

When the mostly likely avenues of investigation turn into deadends, he begins tracking down a scandalous incident involving Hansen. The event caused his separation from his wife and daughter. It also so terrorized a young woman she ended up institutionalized for life. It tainted Hansen with suspicion, although the family refused to call in the police. Everyone tells Varg he’s wasting his time on the long ago event.

Layered on the mystery of Emma’s disappearance are the mysteries of his own family. As he meets other relatives through Norma, suspicion grows that maybe the reserved tram conductor whom Varg called “Dad” wasn’t.

This is a typical police procedural. Varg is a likeable character. The plot is unusual and comes to a startling conclusion. An absorbing read.

These books in the Varg Veum series have been translated into English:

  • Yours Until Death (published in 1979; English translation by Margaret Amassian published in 1993).
  • At Night All Wolves are Grey (published in 1983; translated into English by David McDuff and published in 1986)
  • The Writing on the Wall (published in Swedish in 1995; in English in 2004 with the translation done by Hal Sutcliffe)
  • The Consorts of Death (published in Swedish in 2006; translated into English by Don Bartlett and published in 2009)
  • Cold Hearts (published in 2008; translated into English by Don Bartlett and published in 2012)
  • Where Roses Never Die (published in Swedish in 2012; translated into English by Don Bartlett and published in 2016)


About the Author: Gunnar Staalsen (1947 – )

Born in Bergen, Norway, Gunnar Staalsen has written more than 20 crime novels as well as the Varg Veum series and other novels. His first book, Uskyldigtider (Innocent Times) was published in 1969 when he was 22.

In Norway, there have been 12 film adaptations of novels in the Varg Veum series. Staalsen has twice won Norway’s top crime-writing prize, the Golden Pistol.

As a 13-year-old, he discovered The Hound of the Baskervilles and later the Martin Beck books by Swedish writers Sjowall and Wahloo. He’s a fan of Chester Himes’ Harlem detective novels but considers Chandler to be the master of crime fiction.

Staaleson has said in interviews that Varg is his response to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. If so, Varg is a kinder, gentler version. A former social worker, Varg brings an empathy that the cynical detectives who inspired him don’t have.

After graduating from college, Staalsen went to work for Den Nationale Scene, the Bergen theater. He says he reads four newspapers a day and gets all his plot ideas from them, even if it’s only a sentence that sets him thinking.

About the Translator: Don Bartlett

Don Bartlett has translated novels by many Danish and Norwegian authors, including Jo Nesbo.  He translated Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. He lives with his family in Norfolk, England.


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