I have recently become interested in how certain writers use the conventions of mysteries and thrillers to explore topics. Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives was a madly ambitious literary example. Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night and American by Day are both firmly within the mystery genre but both use a crime, pursuit, detection, and chase to explore a variety of difficult topics, including racism and violence in American by Day, and anti-Semitism, post traumatic stress, immigration and parental guilt in Norwegian by Night.
|Derek B. Miller|
A widowed, retired watch repairer, an ex-Marine Ranger and sharpshooter, Donny is intensely patriotic, pugnacious, cranky, and opinionated. His late wife thought he was showing signs of dementia; his beloved grand daughter has similar suspicions, and to be fair, he does conduct conversations with his dead friend Bill Harmon as well as experience intense serial trips with his dead son, Saul, along his fatal journey on the Mekong River.
Nonetheless, Donny is as close to a believable eighty-one year old action hero as you are likely to get. When one of his grand daughter’s neighbors is murdered in their Oslo apartment, he finds himself on the run from ex-Kosovar militia with a traumatized little boy. Donny doesn’t speak Norwegian; he doesn’t have access to a car or a weapon; he can’t risk public transport, and he feels every day of his age. He’s impossible not to root for.
Donny Horowitz’s ingenuity is matched by Sigrid Ødegård in American by Day. Sigrid, the Police Chief Inspector in Norwegian by Night, has like Donny, her own regrets and bad memories. Although a more subdued character – Miller’s women, though well-drawn are not as impressive as his men – Sigrid proves equally ingenious off her own patch. Searching for her missing brother Marcus in upstate New York State, she navigates an unfamiliar geographic and cultural landscape with considerable aplomb.
Through her eyes, Miller gives a foreigner’s view of our tangled mess of race, sex and violence, much as he used Donny Horowitz to critique aspects of Norway. Well aware of our record of gun violence, Sigrid struggles to find her shy, almost reclusive brother before the authorities and also to understand how he became a suspect in the death of his African American lover, a woman herself traumatized in the wake of a police shooting.
The psychological climate of the book is necessarily somber but occasionally relieved by feisty bit characters like the savvy prostitute who has inherited tenancy in Marcus’s apartment and especially by Irving Wylie, the decent and philosophical local sheriff who may prove susceptible to Sigrid’s off beat charms.
Together, the paired novels are thoughtful, ambitious, and entertaining. If the body count in Norwegian by Night is maybe more than is needful and if American by Day is occasionally talky, they are both superior specimens of the genre, with all the action, smart dialogue and ingenuity that characterize good mysteries.