#37 / Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night

Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night (ebook; London: Faber and Faber, 2013). 5 stars

Opening line: It is summer and luminous. 

I’m very excited about this book. Promoted as ‘a literary novel, a police thriller, and the funniest book about war crimes and dementia you are likely to read anytime soon’ (true), it’s also one of the best and most original novels you’ll ever read.

The star of the novel and its central protagonist is Sheldon Horowitz, a recently-widowed Jewish-American octogenarian and former Marine with possible dementia, who has been transplanted by granddaughter Rhea from New York to Oslo, so that she and her husband Lars can take care of him in his dotage. A few weeks after his arrival, following sounds of a violent argument in the flat above, Sheldon is faced with a life-changing choice: whether or not to open his door to help a mother and son in physical danger. His decision to do so, strongly influenced by the memory of the Holocaust, sets off a chain of events which have major repercussions for himself and those around him.

I loved this novel’s distinctive Jewish-New York voice and its brilliant characterisation of Sheldon, an old man trying to right past wrongs and protect a six-year-old boy from harm by drawing on the memory of his soldier’s training from half a lifetime ago. The narrative has the free-wheeling brilliance and humour characteristic of the best Jewish-American writing and is, quite simply, a joy to read (Miller’s work fits perfectly with others like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer). The following excerpt is typical:

Sheldon catches his breath and stands up again. He walks over beside Paul and says, “Right, now we start walking backward. If we’re lucky, we’ll go backward in time, before yesterday and the day before. Before you were born, all the way back to at least 1952 […] We could stop for lunch in 1977. I knew an excellent sandwich shop in 1977.”

The novel also explores an extraordinary number of larger subjects and themes, such as: fatherhood, parental regret and loss; aging, memory and dementia; Jewishness, identity, the desire to belong, masculinity and war; the German Occupation of Norway during World War Two, the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Balkan Wars; war crimes and justice; and, last but not least, criminality and policing in a global era. While hugely ambitious in tackling such a wide range of issues, the author – somehow – manages to integrate them successfully, along with three generations of Horowitz family history, into a thrilling plot.

Written by an American author based in Oslo, this is also very much a book about Norway and its relation to the world. Sheldon and Rhea’s outsider perspectives  – like the author’s own – provide the opportunity for wry comparative analyses of American and Norwegian cultural traits. Meanwhile, Police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård (another warm and wonderfully-realised character), allows the narrative to reflect on the globalisation of organised crime and the opportunities afforded to criminal networks through the softening of Europe’s borders. Norway is depicted as unprepared for the speed of these developments, with criticism levelled at its liberals (‘expounding limitless tolerance’) and conservatives (‘racist or xenophobic’), as well the failure of both sides to hold positions properly ‘grounded in evidence’. Here we see the author’s own background in international relations shining through: in a 2012 interview on the ‘Bite the Book’ blog, Miller describes how he has worked ‘designing “evidence-based” approaches to peace and security programming for almost a decade at The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’. The whole interview is well worth a read.

Norwegian by Night is by turns a hilariously funny, heart-breakingly sad and genuinely suspenseful novel that makes you care deeply about its characters – not least the irascible Sheldon. On finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again –  along with a stack of other books it called to mind (by Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Michael Chabon, to name but three). You can’t ask for more than that.

With thanks to Raven Crime Reads for alerting me to this novel. You can read Raven’s excellent review here (which contains slightly more details of the plot than included above). There’s also an earlier Mrs P. post on Jewish detectives here.

Mrs. Peabody awards Norwegian by Night an utterly brilliant 5 stars

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47 thoughts on “#37 / Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night

    • Thanks very much, Raven. A new absolute favourite. By the sounds of it, Miller had trouble publishing initially and the novel was a real slow burner (first published in Norwegian in translation!). Deserves to be hugely successfully and I will keep passing the recommendation on…

  1. This sounds superb. I love original narrative voices and from what you’ve quoted it seems that this is precisely what we have here. I’m off to look for a copy now. Thank you.

    • Absolutely, Alex – a truly unforgettable narrative voice. I think I may have withdrawal symptoms. Hope very much that you enjoy.

  2. Mrs. P – Oh, I’ve wanted to read this for a wile, and you’ve reminded me that I must get to it. Soon. I’m really intrigued by the unique voice in this story and the way that’s melded with the crime story itself. An excellent review as ever!

  3. Wow what a review, should be on the back of the book! Did groan at the ‘literary book’ term, but it sounds really interesting, & I do enjoy Chabon’s books, although long time since read any Vonnegut , a author of my younger years! So I’ll add it to my list of books to read, which is getting
    rather long!

    • Thanks, Brian – I wouldn’t worry about the literary tag. It’s just a very good book! If you enjoy Chabon, you’ll find much to like here, I’m sure.

      I know the feeling about that growing list of books. So much interesting stuff out there to read…

  4. This sounds very, very good but definitely sad. I will definitely find it and read it, but having had some experience with dementia… it may be painful.

    I read the post on Jewish detectives. I have read all the Rabbi Small novels, but I have a copy of the first one to reread. Also have read and really liked the book by Chabon. The book by Harri Nykanen sounds good also.

    • Thanks for your comment, TracyK. There is some sadness, but lots of affirmation too. Perhaps tread carefully if the subject of dementia is a painful one for you (although I actually felt it wasn’t *totally* clear that Sheldon had dementia – others think he has, but he himself doesn’t…).

      The Nykanen is good. The plot is a little over-complex, but the depiction of the detective is cracking. I haven’t read all of the Rabbi Smalls – something for the summer (if it ever turns up!).

  5. Wowza, this sounds brilliant, really want to read it, do hope it’s not too sad though; right, it’s going on my Pinterest Books I Plan Reading List (I know this is terrible but I love adding books to this!! Satisfies my uptight organised side…)

    • I can’t lie. There is sadness. But there’s lots of humour and goodness too.

      I haven’t fully discovered Pinterest yet (am wondering if there’s a limit to how many online bits one can manage at any one time). But will check it out! Discovered Tumblr the other week and liked that very much.

  6. Here’s two Writers you might find interesting, I came across both in the TLS, surpriseingly, not the sort of journal you tend to find reviews of genre, or popular fiction .The first was David Stacton, then the following week, Charles Mccarry, I’ll deal with him first, American, he published 7 spy novels between 70’s & 90’s based around the character Paul Christopher. It seems he actually worked for the CIA, which he refers to as the ‘outfit’, in Europe, Africa, & Asia. which explains why most of the action takes place abroad. I would put him the same mould as Alun Furst & Joeseph Kanon, who I rate very highly, deffinatatly pre 9/11. Great plots, multitude of characters, at the moment I’m reading the last in the series ‘Second Sight’ it’s the only one BH had! It has a multi layed plot, & it is the best book I’ve read so far this year, although I’ve not finished it yet, all 470 pages of it! Will be purchasing the other 6. Now Mr Stacton, interesting character shall we say! He wrote Historical fiction, among other things. 3 caught my eye ‘ People of the Book’ which is set during the 30 years war! You don’t get many books set in that period! One about Ludwig of Bavaria, & another in 15th century Naples based on the Duchess of Amalfi, think of the John Webster play. These books are published by Faber Finds, which publish books by forgotten or little knowen authors. So they you are, am going to download the People of the Book, & see how it goes. Just downloaded Norwegian by Night.
    Wiki is good for info on both.

    • Ah Brian, you are good to me, bringing me treasures so regularly! I’d not heard of either of these authors before, and they do both sound very alluring. I’m in a bit of a spying groove, what with le Carre and Ambler, and McCarry sounds like he would be interesting with his slightly different CIA perspective. Shall check them both out. Thanks!

    • HI, I wanted to add more praise for Charles McCarry. I read all of his books a couple of years ago and loved every one. I wish I had time to reread them again. I did reread the first one recently, The Miernik Dossier, which is not my favorite and written in a different style, but still very, very good.

  7. Sounds good to me! I love New York Jewish humor. That’s what I grew up with, having Eastern European Jewish relatives all around me. English with a Yiddish accent is nearly my mother tongue.
    All of the elements you mention make this book sound irresistible. I’ll put it on my TBR mountain and hope to get a copy of it.
    Thanks for the excellent review.

    • You’re welcome, Kathy. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about it, especially the quality of the humour! Sheldon made me laugh out loud a number of times.

  8. I am so glad you recommended this – it’s the most exciting find I’ve had for ages and the fact that you pointed it out (rather than me actually finding it for myself) doesn’t reduce the pleasure. I think it’s probably going to be one of the real greats.

    • I hope so, Michael. It deserves great success. I read somewhere that the novel had actually first been published in Norway in translation, and that English-language publishers had initially been reluctant to take it. But the word of mouth recommendation on the part of readers is proving to be very strong…

  9. I love laughing out loud while reading mysteries. Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec has me laughing this week — sometimes in disbelief at what has been said it’s so quirky and yet perfect.

    • Yes – I don’t quite know how he squeezed it all in and kept the whole thing manageable. Quite a feat.

      As for being naughty, yes, guilty as charged. Too many good reads out there at the moment. Am in the middle of Plan D at the moment (very enjoyable alternative history set in a Germany where the wall did not fall…).

    • Excellent, Judith. Hope you enjoy! One of my friends got back to me yesterday to say that she’d loved it (she’s not a big crime fan, so it does seem to be reaching a broad readership).

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  11. I am reading this book now thanks to this review and reviews at two other blogs. I laughed out loud for the first 26 or so pages, especially at the photographic “Study of Unwilling Subjects,” and why they were unwilling. But it’s definitely New York Jewish humor.
    The author weaves historical points, philosophy in with the poignancy and sadness of loss quite seamlessly. And the humor; what can I say? It’s right on and brilliant.
    However, now I’ve shed a few tears as historical truths come up about WWII and the Vietnam and Korean wars, the latter two unnecessary in my view, yet which caused millions of Asian deaths, not to mention American losses.
    Anyway, this is a brilliant book no matter how one views it.

    • I’m really glad that you’re enjoying this one, Kathy. It’s such a gem. It seems to me that incorporating humour into a crime narrative is one of the most difficult things to pull off, but Miller really manages it. Hope you continue to enjoy as you read on…

  12. Yes. I did enjoy it. Sheldon Horowitz is quite a character, very New York Jewish in humor and angst. What it means to be an “American” is to fight in the wars. Very sad and tragic to Sheldon, as it turned out. I liked Rhea’s character and also Sigrid, the police investigator and sharpshooter. A good book. Was sad it was over.

    • Yes, me too. Like you, I thought one of the big strengths of the novel was the characterisation. I’d love to see a series featuring Sigrid (Mr. Miller, please take note).

  13. Many Thanks for the Norwegian by Night recommendation. I loved it. Got it from the library and have now gone and bought it as I want to re-read it. I love the wry, almost throwaway comments on modern Norway and Norwegians, rather like in Jo Nesbo’s books,and the wicked humour throughout.
    Had it not been for your 5 stars I might have passed it by in the shops, as frankly I find a little of feisty American Jewish Humour can go a long way with me; but it would have been a shame to have missed Sheldon. He, like the hero of “100year old man who jumped out of a window and ran away”, shows there is life in the old guys of Scandi all right. Though very different stories.

    Yes another about Sigrid would be good. Though it is refreshing to read a novel which is not hung about a main character. Just read “The Subtle Theft of Youth” by DJ Wiseman (David not Donald Wiseman) available from Waterstones. This is set in the Cotswolds when a flash flood reopens both an impromptu burial and a missing girl enquiry of eleven years previously. But it is not an Agatha Raisin Cotswolds. The author has chosen to have a wider cast of main characters and for me that increased the uncertainty and mystery. There were “clues’ but not all story lines are resolved (as indeed things often are not in real life) and I thoroughly enjoyed wondering what had lead various characters to the current stages of their lives/marriages etc, long after finishing the book. Some good characterisations, depictions of different strata of society, realistic conversation and a delicious, positively poisonous vicar’s wife, all with excellent descriptive writing. You can definitely smell the debris the flood leaves behind. Well worth seeking out.

    Wish I had been at the Bristol Crime Fiction event, as I am now drawing to a close a mammoth 6 month reading of European Crime Fiction since WW11, prompted by Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 series last autumn. (With time off for other books in between) Some gems, some real turkeys which I suspect only got translated and published in English as they were written in Sweden. I do like the social comment aspect of Euro crime- a story about society in which crime features- which is not always so evident in UK Crime.
    If like me you had not read Josef Skvorecky, Jakob Arjouni, Leonardo Sciascia or Hakon Nesser then give yourself a real treat and get down to the library now.

    A chat over coffee and cake in our local library this morning included the fact that many of us when we stand in need of a bit of “comfort reading” go in for crime, and Agatha Christie is a favourite. For me, I return to Margery Allingham and Michael Innes, both so well written, with such wit, rather like the joys of PG Wodehouse.

    Another interesting discussion point was an author’s choice of names, both to set a character’s
    age (as Alan Bennet wrote “there are no Kevins or Traceys in Old Folks Homes yet”) and social milieu. The above mentioned vicar’s wife is Acantha!.

    Off to Norway in two weeks hurray! Beautiful scenery and Jo Nesbo’s latest in the shops, if they have got the reprint ready- the first run of 270.000 sold out in 48 hours.

    • Thanks for your excellent comment, Lynne. I’m away from home for a couple of days, so will respond at greater length once I’m back. Very glad you enjoyed Norwegian by Night!

    • Thanks, Lynne. I have the 100 Year Man on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I’m getting more and more into ‘mature’ points of view – good to see an under-represented section of society being given a voice.

      I thought you made a good point about Norwegian By Night not ‘getting hung up’ on the main character. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but now you’ve said it, I see that it is very much an ensemble piece with a really nice range of different perspectives. It makes the novel’s characterisation all the more impressive, as Miller pulls it off not just with Sheldon, but with lots of other characters too. I liked Rhea and Sigrid in particular.

      Thanks for your recommendations. I’m very impressed that you’ve worked your way through the R4 Foreign Bodies authors. Mark Lawson would be *very* proud of you. I’ve still to read Sciascia, and must get around to him this summer…

      Have a wonderful time in Norway, and look forward to hearing your views on Nesbo’s latest offering.

    • For better or for worse, I have that kind of comparative mind-set: whenever I read a book I’m mentally scrolling through the files of everything I’ve read before and seeing links. Great unless it interferes too much with reading the book in hand! Anyhow, very glad you enjoyed Norwegian by Night. It really is a classy debut.

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