It begins, as all such stories do, with a murder.
But this is not your garden-variety whodunit. In fact, we know whodunit. “Norwegian by Night” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Derek B. Miller’s fine debut novel, is less about who committed the murder, and even less about why the murder happened. Partly a murder-and-chase thriller — the book is truly a page-turner — but mostly literary fiction, “Norwegian by Night” is about past wars and present-day ethnic strife, family, grief, guilt and, ultimately, redemption. Korea (and phantom Koreans), Vietnam, the Holocaust, ethnic identity — Serb, Norwegian, Muslim, and yes, Jewish — these are the true characters of the novel.
Our hero is 82-year-old New Yorker Sheldon Horowitz, who has outlived everyone — including his son Saul, who died in Vietnam — except his granddaughter Rhea. Sheldon was too young to volunteer for World War II, so he jumped at the chance to go to Korea. Even though he experienced combat, and was decorated, Sheldon always felt that he’d missed his moment. Guilt-ridden over the death of his son, Sheldon has left New York for Norway to live with the granddaughter he raised and her nice-guy, very Scandinavian, Norwegian husband.
As a stranger murders the immigrant woman who lives upstairs, Sheldon spies her desperation through his peephole, and recalls the Europeans who witnessed the murder of European Jewry and kept their doors locked. Here, finally, is his chance. Although he fails to protect the woman, Sheldon shelters and escapes with her young son — whom he calls “Paul,” a new incarnation, perhaps, of his slain Saul. Maybe, he thinks this child he can save. Horowitz, at 82, becomes the quintessential picaresque adventurer as he steals boats and tractors — and guns — in running around Norway with “Paul.”
The novel’s subtext is played out in a sometimes comic, sometimes horrifying, police procedural. Sigrid Odegard, the chief inspector in charge of the case, trades droll barbs with her sidekick Petter as they track down the killer. It turns out the killer, a Kosovar, is involved in organized crime and wanted for war crimes in Serbia. His associates are thugs and drug-runners (some of them are almost human), and one is the obligatory (for the thriller genre) hitman, “The Black.”
And yes, there is the Holocaust. Hovering over the tale is the issue of being a Jew in Norway — one of 1,000 Jews in all — and, over that, the spectre of Norway’s roundup of the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation. Norway did not apologize until 2012. Jews and the Holocaust are not on anyone’s radar-screen in Norway — but they are very much on the mind of Sheldon Horowitz, the American whose granddaughter is a new Norwegian.
Jewish identity as well is of a piece with Horowitz’s narrative. For Sheldon, “All they think of when they hear the word ‘Jew’ is the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian fiasco … nowhere is there a place for Sheldon Horowitz. Nowhere is there three thousand years of history, philosophy, theater, art, craftsmanship, scholarship, writing, pontificating, fornicating, or well-timed humor, goddamn it!”
Sheldon, crudely, gets it precisely right.
“Norwegian by Night” is a beautifully written book: flashbacks; disparate characters, some real, many imagined; the thrills of the getaway and chase, denouement with the bad guys, the good guy (Sheldon), and the police — all of the elements converge in a splendidly contoured story in which Jewishness, the Holocaust, war, old age and youth, contemporary ethnic pillage, are pondered. And the novel is also very funny. The dialogue between Sigrid and her constipated bureaucratic boss give the word “droll” new meaning:
Boss: “Do you have any suspects?”
Sigrid: “Sheldon Horowitz.”
There is a pause at the other end of the phone.
A very. Long. Pause.
“An Israeli spy? Mossad?”
“Not Israeli. Jewish. American. An old Marine — in his eighties.”
“The Israelis are hiring old American Marines?” And —
“But … Jewish? Why do Jews have Jewish names?”
And so on.
“Norwegian by Night” is a top-notch thriller, that is clear; but it is the characterizations of the varied players that fuel the suspense of the narrative. The novel is funny, moving and thoroughly gripping, and Miller keeps the reader off balance. What’s the real story, and what is fantasy? We wonder about Sheldon — is he sane? — about his family, about the Kosovar killers, about the Norwegian cops, about Norway itself.
But at bottom it is all about murder. The murder of the Balkan woman by the Kosovar thug is the narrative vehicle for exploring 20th-century murder: murder in Vietnam, murder in Kosovo, murder in the Holocaust. The “night” of “Norwegian by Night” is day in the novel, which takes place during the summer — but the metaphor is that of the long 20th-century “night.”
It begins with a murder. ✹