My first impression of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night was that it was written by an underachiever. An underachiever in the ironic sense, that is.
Boston-born, well-travelled Miller is—as the book’s bio tells us—the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Along the way he’s acquired a PhD in international relations and a Master’s degree in national security studies.
Ergo he’s rather qualified to write about a former Marine facing off against Balkan war criminals. So qualified that I wondered if this book was going to read a little too high level. It didn’t. In fact, it was smashingly smart in the most accessible, show-me-more way.
Sheldon Horowitz is a recently widowed 82-year-old Korean War vet and watch repairer literally haunted by the mistakes of his past. Lost emotionally and (we’re led to believe) losing his mind courtesy of encroaching dementia, he blames himself for the death of his only son, Saul, who followed in his military footsteps. Unlike Sheldon, Saul never returned home from war.
With nothing and no one now keeping him in New York, Sheldon begrudgingly moves to Norway to live with his granddaughter, Rhea, who he raised after Saul’s death. Sheldon’s the quintessential grumpy old man—he fantasises about stuffing a hot dog up his peppy grandson-in-law’s nose on the very first page; on page 66 he grumbles to the box office girl about the ridiculousness of assigned movie theatre seating—but he’s also a wily, complex, and compelling character too.
He no sooner he arrives in Norway than he witnesses a murder and, trusting no one, Sheldon employs his dormant-but-not-forgotten Marine instincts and skills to take the murdered woman’s son to safety, with him (and by proxy us) unsure what’s real and what’s in his mind.
Sigrid, the lead cop on the case (and a compelling, likeable character herself), explains it thus:
‘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.’
Playing catch-up to him are his granddaughter and her husband, the killer and co., and the police.
Miller’s book is a clever crime thriller of the ilk of Val McDermid: incisively intelligent without being academically dry. And his observations and well-wrought dialogue had me dog-earing pages in a kind of I-must-remember-that awe. Explaining how Sheldon’s granddaughter came to earn her name, he also unpacks the book’s bigger picture:
It took a Polish author to inspire this American Jew, who named his daughter for a Greek Titan before being killed by a Vietnamese mine in an effort to please his Marine grandfather, who was once a sniper in Korea—and was undoubtedly, even now, being pursued by the North Koreans across the wilderness of Scandinavia.
He peppers it too, with plenty of wry humour.
‘What happened?’ Sigrid’s father asks her.
‘I got hit on the head.’
There is a pause on the other end of the phone.
She waits for it to end. But, oddly, the pause continues.
‘You have nothing to say?’
‘Now that you ask … Why didn’t you bring a gun?’
‘I told you. I was hit on the head. I didn’t need a gun. I needed a helmet.’
As the book approaches its climax and the cops are desperately trying to make it to the scene of what will be the final showdown, they find themselves driving a Volvo. Having already mocked her deputy for driving too slowly, she instructs him to take it off-road despite it not being a four-wheel drive:
The car shakes and bounces. He drives it like a rally car. They are making ground, and they are both thinking the same thought. It is Sigrid, though, who says it first. ‘If the f%&king airbags go off in this Volvo, I am invading Sweden, so help me God!’
Norwegian By Night is a thoughtful novel absent of the airport fiction-style hyperbole but with enough happening to both impress and keep you turning the page. I found myself increasingly enjoying its plot and its quirky characters as the tale unfolded. It left me wanting to hear more from this author accomplished in other areas as well, now, in fiction, and hoping he might turn his hand to non-fiction too to give us insight into the undoubtedly fascinating elements of his United Nations and international relations career.