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le loup dans la bergerie

31 july 2019

Le loup dans la bergerie is a classic private-eye novel, right down to the dames with the platinum hair who you knew were trouble the moment you met them.

The first of Gunnar Staalesen's "Varg Veum" novels that I'd read was Yours Until Death (1979). As often happens with translations of novel series, Yours Until Death was not the first to be translated into English, but it was the earliest of the Varg Veums to eventually make its way into English. Le loup dans la bergerie (1977) is the earliest of them to appear in a language I can read, though two earlier ones exist in their original Norwegian and perhaps other languages beyond my grasp.

Varg Veum begins Le loup dans la bergerie in Bergen, Norway, in the typical PI's office with his feet on the table, a pile of bills beside them, and no clients to speak of. The hook for the story is elegant, and it spoils nothing to tell you about it, because it all happens within the first few pages.

A successful lawyer shows up. Could Veum shadow the lawyer's young, beautiful, and wayward wife? Get outta here, says Veum, I don't do divorce work. The next day, a mousy individual from out of town shows up. Could Veum track down the guy's long-lost sister? Sure, says Veum. Do you have a photograph? The guy produces one. It's the lawyer's roaming wife.

The easiest 500 krone that Veum has ever earned, it would seem, but then of course we would have no story. His new client asks Veum to tail the sister for a while, just to gather some information preparatory to their reunion. It's been so long, you see – he wants to approach her obliquely, give himself some time to work up to it. Any cautious private eye would say no thanks, you've got your name and address. But Veum is not cut from cautious cloth.

The resulting complications are both satisfyingly complicated and satisfyingly clear. Part of the clean texture of the story comes from its setting in the 1970s, in a world without cellphones or the Internet or social media, one where private eyes have to follow suspicious folks in cars and brace them personally to learn more about them. A world where you have to pull over and find a payphone is somehow more conducive to crime fiction than one where you can instantly contact anybody.

Varg Veum is a bit self-destructive, a bit addictive, a bit impulsive. Like any good PI, he gets beaten up quite a bit, but sometimes turns the tables on his tormentors. He shares with many a fictional detective a chivalrous streak, particularly toward children. He's lost a job in social services because of his penchant for beating up guys who abuse teenage girls. The case of the supposed wife/sister leads him to many an opportunity to continue this quest as a private citizen. In the process, we experience Veum's cynicism and often his sexism (toward adult women who participate in the abuse), but we know at heart we have a hero we can empathize with – his ends, at least, if not always his means.

The Norwegian title of Le loup dans la bergerie is Bukken til havresekken. The French means "the wolf in the sheepfold"; the Norwegian, something like "the stag with the sack of grain": in each case, a metaphor for leaving valuables or vulnerables under exactly the wrong supervision. The name "Varg Veum" itself seems to mean something like "the wolf in the sheepfold," but the term bears a complicated relation to the plot of the novel. You may have suspected that somebody wants to frame Veum for a crime, and the way they go about it is to make him seem like a wolf given access to some sheep. But Veum knows that he's really being set up as a bouc émissaire: the bad guys' scapegoat.

Staalesen, Gunnar. Le loup dans la bergerie. [Bukken til havresekken, 1977.] Translated by Olivier Gouchet, 1994. Revised 2001. Paris: Gallimard, 2014.