Written by Derek B Miller – Nominated for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger, this debut novel about an 82-year-old ex-marine from New York on the run with a six-year-old boy in Oslo has become a deserving international hit. There’s even a movie adaptation in the works.
Miller’s book certainly weaves in satisfyingly familiar thriller elements: a merciless killing, a pursuit that ends in the woods and even a MacGuffin, in the form of a pink jewellery box, to keep you hooked. Ultimately, though, Norwegian by Night has captivated readers thanks to universal themes of family, loss and regret. It has characters you care about – or fear, in the case of Kosovan militia leader Enver. The Black, his deadly shadow of a bodyguard, is even more terrifying: his comrades believe he’s devoid of a soul.
Sheldon ‘Donny’ Horowitz is a fish out of water, living with his granddaughter in Oslo following the death of his wife. Given Horowitz’s survivor guilt over fellow soldiers in the Korean War and his son Saul, who died in Vietnam, and the suggestion of incipient dementia, you might expect a maudlin novel of pain and foggy nostalgia. Yes, it has a muscular melancholy tone, but it’s also a gleeful, awkwardly heroic adventure in the company of an opinionated, sharp-witted Jewish octogenarian.
Norwegian by Night remains utterly engrossing from the moment Horowitz hides in a wardrobe with the six-year-old (christened ‘Paul’ by the elderly American) while they evade Enver, following a violent domestic dispute that Donny has overheard. The boy’s Serbian mother, who is Donny’s neighbour, is not so fortunate. Horowitz decides to go on the run because he doesn’t trust the Norwegian police to protect the boy, partly due to an instinctive fear of the murderous pursuer and also because of his antipathy to Europeans. Donny’s Jewishness is central to a story fueled by anger at the 50 years it took Norway to build a memorial to Holocaust victims, including the 772 Jews rounded up and deported during the Nazi occupation.
Miller, the author, is an American who’s lived in Oslo, works in UN international relations policy and brings a strong sense of historical conflict and persecution to this novel. The murder of the Serbian woman is linked to her painful past in the Balkans and it soon emerges that Enver is the father of her child – and he wants to find the boy and take him back to his country, which achieved independence in 2008. While Kosovo was seen as the victim in the country’s 1998-99 war, Miller’s novel addresses the fallout of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which lost NATO support after evidence of drug running and executions. To the consternation of both Horowitz and Sigrid Ødegård, the police chief inspector leading the search for the boy, liberal Norway has given potential KLA war criminals a home.
Horowitz was originally written as a minor character, Miller has revealed, yet forced himself to the forefront of the story, which has comedic elements on his journey through an unfamiliar landscape in the company of a boy whose language he cannot speak.
‘What if we’re not tracking down a senile old man, but instead we’re up against a wily old fox with a noble cause?’ says Sigrid as he continues to evade detection. Donny’s certainly wily, though he’s also distracted by internal, guilty conversations with his dead son and an old friend from New York, as well as the half-century of paranoia that the North Koreans are going to catch up with him.
The narrative has a fatalistic quality as Horowitz tries to keep the boy safe and rescue his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband at their summerhouse in the Norwegian wilderness. ‘It is not the exertion that will kill him at eighty-two, but the simple adrenaline,’ thinks Donny. The ending is compact, tense and moving as the trauma of past and present combine in the mind of this old soldier, who’s fighting to protect an innocent child as well as the only family he has left.
Norwegian by Night is a Scandinavian thriller with a distinctive American voice and it will be hard to beat in its Dagger award category next month.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars