Book Review

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The Talented Mr Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith

I can’t remember if the cover of the previous Varg story I’ve reviewed, The Man with the Silver Saab, showed the author’s given name with a diaeresis over the first A, as it is on this one, but I have eschewed using it here, because it looks superfluous to me, and something of a self-indulgence: perhaps it makes Smith feel more exotic—especially given the prosaic nature of his family name. That aside, I remember enjoying the previous book, so I was looking forward to reading this one and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. That said, notwithstanding that this latest story continues with the same characters as the previous one [a perusal of my aforementioned review would be beneficial here], there is one slightly odd element: in the previous story, Varg strikes up an amorous relationship with the temporary receptionist employed by his dog’s vet, but here, there is no mention of this when Martin, the deaf, lip-reading dog, is taken for a routine visit to monitor his depression & serotonin levels [half-way through the story] so, given that many readers do enjoy following books’ protagonists’ progress in succeeding stories, we are left in the dark as to whether Varg’s previous attachment was successful, or not—we have to assume not, unfortunately, as there is no mention here of a love interest.

There are two main story threads here and, as previously, they are dealt with in a slow, laid-back way by Varg: he’s much too thoughtful & considerate to go blundering in aggressively, as some other detectives might—I can’t speak for other fictional Swedish detectives, of course. In addition, one element from the earlier story which does overlap here is Varg’s suppressed infatuation with his colleague, Anna; this is thrown into some confusion when she confides in him that she suspects her husband of having an affair. Naturally, Varg is conflicted: he would love this to mean that Anna’s marriage can be terminated, and he could confess his true feelings; this also makes him feel guilty, for his selfishness, and he is ambivalent about whether he could condone his complicity in Anna’s subsequent unhappiness, until she accepted him: but would she?

The ongoing cases are the possible blackmailing of a university lecturer, and the possibility of a scam involving wolf-like domestic dogs being sold abroad purporting to be real wolves. As before, Varg includes his uniform colleague Blomquist in these investigations, and Varg suffers the same mixture of emotions about working with this man who can be tedious & irritating, but also has surprising & unexpected insights. Varg also has to work hard not to alienate his neighbour, Mrs Högfors, who is very accommodating with her care for Martin, but she has a pathological dislike of Russians, and she is not immediately dismissive of the political views of Varg’s brother, who is leader of the rather Pratchett-like Moderate Extremists; surely an oxymoron? That’s Smith’s little joke, of course.

These stories are always, for me, a pleasant meander without too much jeopardy, whilst still dealing with real-world issues, albeit in a tongue in cheek way. There are occasional allusions to peculiarly Swedish nastiness, but I enjoy not having to confront them continually in these books. As before, I am happy to recommend this one, and I would be pleased to find the third book, albeit the first of the trilogy [so far], naming the locus of Varg’s professional work: The Department of Sensitive Crimes. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020] by Abacus [Little, Brown], ISBN 978-0-3491-4408-5.

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