Book Review: 'Norwegian by Night' by Derek B. Miller
Review by Susan Grigsby
Norwegian By Night by Derek B Miller Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 21st 2013 303 Pages Recipient of Crime Writers' Association New Blood Dagger 2013
“An eighty-two-year-old demented American sniper is allegedly being pursued by Korean assassins across Norway after fleeing a murder scene. Either before or after.”
Rhea furrows her eyebrows. “I don’t think I’d phrase it quite like that,” she says.
“What did I miss?” Sigrid asks, looking at her notes.
“Well . . . he’s Jewish.”
Sheldon Horowitz, recently widowed at 82, has moved from his New York home to the home of his granddaughter in Oslo, Norway. Rhea, now married to a Norwegian video game creator, is the daughter of Sheldon's only child, Saul, who died while fighting in Vietnam.
Sheldon's war was the one in Korea that still haunts him as he feels he is being spied upon and chased by Koreans, even into Norway. It is this obsession with the Korean War and his insistence that he was a sniper in the war, and not the file clerk his family imagined him to be, that leads his granddaughter to believe he is becoming senile.
And perhaps he is, for after he witnesses the murder of the Balkan woman who lived upstairs, he takes off with her son, whom he feels is in danger from the angry Eastern European man who killed the boy's mother. Naming the silent child Paul, in honor of his own son, Sheldon is on the run in Norway, able to speak only English with a child in tow, hiding from the police, who he fears will return the boy to his violent, murdering father, and from the father himself, a Kosovar War criminal.
This thriller goes back and forth between Sheldon and his pursuers, between the past and present as flashbacks reveal a complex man who, at 82 is still as vibrantly alive as he was on the day in 1950 that he stole an Australian rowboat to avoid missing the Inchon landing. He may not be as physically strong as his memories, which aggravates him, but he manages to elude capture with a child disguised in a long white T-shirt, a blond wig capped with a viking helmet that Sheldon constructed with a cardboard paper towel roll, aluminum foil, a hanger and a wool cap. Oh, and he talks to dead people. Especially to Bill, who used to run the pawn shop next door to his own watch repair shop in New York City so many years ago.
With his fine ear for dialogue, Derek Miller introduces the humor that leavens the tension, suspense, and painful memories that make up a good deal of this story of a man who could not save his own son. Using an unreliable narrator who leaves us wondering what was true and what was fantasy, he portrays a Norway as seen through American eyes.
Norwegian by Night is not just a thriller. As Miller introduces us to topics like the behavior of the Norwegians towards the Jews during WWII, and the fact that there are today, one thousand Jews in a land of five million people. He also looks at the legacy of war, of how its impacts don't really end for those who fight them. It is at heart, a novel of fathers and sons, as Sheldon wrestles with the guilt he feels for his encouragement of his son's enlistment during the Vietnam War which led to his death.
Sheldon Horowitz is the main character, and the only one who is so clearly drawn you expect him to leap off the page and start explaining to you why digital watches are inferior to analog. His granddaughter and her husband are little more than names, clearly written as background props. The Police Chief Inspector, Sigrid Ødegård and her right hand man, Petter, are more fun. (She has telephone conversations reminiscent of Bob Newhart's.) I was put off by her emphatic dislike of Norway's open door policy on immigration, but she muses,
The liberals expounded limitless tolerance, the conservatives were racist or xenophobic, and everyone debated from philosophical positions but never from ones grounded in evidence, and so no sober consideration was being given to the very real question now haunting all of Western civilization— namely, How tolerant should we be of intolerance?
And the bad guys are simply bad guys. Even with a backstory, they are simply very bad guys.
A poignant tale of aging and memories of joys and regrets, Norwegian by Night was far more satisfying than I thought it would be when I began it, or when he called Marines, soldiers, or digressed into a memory of a dream. It is the kind of book that stays with you when you reach the end, like the aftertaste of a fine wine.
About the author,
Derek B. Miller, Ph.D (U.S.) is the Director of The Policy Lab and a Founding Partner. He holds the titles of Senior Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR); Associate Scholar at the Center for Local Strategies Research at the University of Washington; Senior Fellow at the Center for Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Guest Lecturer at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.
Although born and raised in the Boston area, he has spent most of his adult life living in Europe where he earned his PhD in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has spent the last 15 years in the field of security affairs. He currently resides in Oslo with his Norwegian wife and two children.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.