Philip Marlowe’s Norwegian cousin

When I set out to write my first novel about Varg Veum, a private investigator living in Bergen, Norway, I had to ask myself this question: Are there any private detectives in Bergen?

The answer was no. At that time—my first Varg Veum novel was published in 1977—there was a married couple doing private detective work in Oslo, but no PI in the second city of the country. My concern, therefore, was whether readers would believe that a PI in the American tradition could operate in the Bergen of the seventies. This was when I remembered what Raymond Chandler once wrote about Philip Marlowe: that he would not have been a detective in real life. He was only a detective because the writer was in need of one. But still I asked: a Philip Marlowe in Bergen?

Philip Marlowe’s Norwegian cousin

I had at that time already published two novels inspired by the work of Jack Kerouac, and two police procedurals drawing on books by the Swedish couple Sjöwall & Wahlöö and by the American writer Chester Himes. When I created Varg Veum, my inspiration came once more from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I was a strong admirer of the American crime-writing tradition started by Dashiell Hammett, perfected by Raymond Chandler, and continued by Ross Macdonald. My aim was to combine Chandler’s poetic and witty style with Hammett’s hard-boiled atmosphere and Macdonald’s clever plotting (Macdonald being the best plot writer of the three). The first novel, which bore the title Bukken til havresekken (a popular expression, which translates as the goat watching the sack of oats) was therefore an experiment: Was it possible to create a Norwegian Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or Lew Archer? The answer turned out to be yes; the book was a great success, among both readers and critics.

From then on I have never looked back. This year sees the publication in Norway of the eighteenth novel about Varg Veum. Aside from the novels, there are also two collections of Varg Veum short stories, a series of seven graphic novels, and twelve films loosely based on the books. As if that were not enough, there have been adaptations for theater and radio. CDs of his favorite music (cool jazz, of course) have also been released, and in 2008 a life-size sculpture of Varg was unveiled on a boardwalk in Bergen, at the entrance to the building where he has his office in the books. Readers in many countries now associate Varg Veum with Bergen in the same way they associate Sherlock Holmes with London, Maigret with Paris, and Philip Marlowe with LA. I think I have proved that a Bergen PI is very possible.

So who is Varg Veum? He is a former social worker with a background in children’s services. He was thirty-four in the first book and is in his early sixties in the latest. He started work as a private investigator in 1976 and has solved an impressive number of crimes in the Bergen area over the forty years that he has been practicing. With a strong social conscience, always siding with the weak against the powerful, he is at heart a classic Scandinavian social democrat, who holds a critical view of the society and the times in which we live—a view he expresses often and with a sharp and sarcastic voice.

Even if there were no private detectives like Varg Veum in Bergen when I started the series, you can find some now. In Norway, as in most of the world, times have changed, so perhaps Varg is now a more realistic character than he was in 1977. Indeed, Norwegian critics have labeled me as a creator of social-realistic crime novels. I am not sure if they are completely correct, as in some ways my books are closer in style to traditional crime fiction, and I construct plots to mystify and entertain as well as to tell the story of the lives of real people in Norway today. However, the critics are right inasmuch as I have always strived to create believable characters with whom readers become so involved, they want to know their fate by the end of the story.

Another fact that has given me the right to believe that, yes, it was possible to create an American-style private investigator for Bergen is that books in the series have been translated into twenty languages. Perhaps readers see Bergen as a place where a PI can operate—it is, after all, situated on the west coast of Norway, just as LA and San Francisco are on the west coast of the US. And perhaps this has something to do with the ocean. Or maybe it’s because oil was discovered in the North Sea in the seventies, at the same time as Varg Veum opened his office at Strandkaien 2 (which readers of the Strand Magazine should know means The Strand Quay!).

The latest book about Varg Veum has the Norwegian title Storesøster (The Big Sister, not to be confused with The Little Sister by Chandler). The next one is already inside of my head, or rather, it is somewhere between my brain and my heart, which is where Varg Veum, in truth, has his place in my life.