Eighty-two years old, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has grudgingly moved to Oslo, with his grand-daughter and her Norwegian husband. An ex-Marine, he talks often to the ghosts of his past – the friends he lost in the Pacific and the son who followed him into the US Army, and to his death in Vietnam. When Sheldon witnesses the murder of a woman in his apartment complex, he rescues her six-year-old son and decides to run. Pursued by both the Balkan gang responsible for the murder, and the Norwegian police, he has to rely on training from over half a century before to try and keep the boy safe. Against a strange and foreign landscape, this unlikely couple, who can’t speak the same language, start to form a bond that may just save them both.
I must admit to having a slight crisis of confidence in writing this review, questioning whether I could do justice to just how marvellous this book is. From the first few pages, I was totally immersed in the life of Sheldon Horowitz, our curmudgeonly hero of the piece: a man haunted by the ghosts of his former life and coping with the daily frustrations of growing old. From the synopsis, it is impossible to harness all the themes and subtlety of prose that this book conveys to the reader. On one level, not only does the book contain all the quintessential elements of a Scandinavian crime novel, it also encompasses the Korean, Vietnam and Balkan conflicts, and on a more emotional level, presents a poignant and meditative examination of aging and regret, that unusually for this cynical reader, really touched me, engaging me even more with the characters and the multi-faceted plot.
As the book opens we get our first encounter with the beautifully realised character of Sheldon Horowitz, uprooted from his native America following the death of his wife, to live in Norway with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars, and the dynamics of this relationship quickly become clear. Indeed, Sheldon’s first response to Rhea urging him to move to Norway is to tell her to get stuffed, feeling his independence is under threat and resenting her assertion that he is in any way senile. He is stubborn and headstrong, but ingrained with a mordant sense of wit and a deep compassionate humanity, particularly evident in his utter determination to protect the life of the young boy he goes on the run with, and his seemingly testy, but ultimately loving relationship with Rhea. What we recognise at the core of his character is a wiliness and a steely determination tempered by the tragedies he has experienced in the past, in particular the loss of his comrades in Korea and the death of his son Saul (Rhea’s father) in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Miller carefully incorporates touching vignettes of Sheldon’s past life experiences, that convey how a man must rise above tragedy to hold onto his sanity and compassion, and how this dicates Sheldon’s actions, that seem foolhardy at first, to keep those closest to him safe from harm. He is without a doubt one of the most perfectly conceived and constructed characters that I have ever read, and one that will stay with me for a long time.
The plot is completely engaging, constructed as a powerful story of flight and the will for survival. Following a brutal murder in Sheldon’s apartment he, without hesitation, goes on the run with the murder victim’s young son, quickly realising that the boy’s life is under threat. Hampered by the barrier of language, Sheldon and his charge pick their way through the beautifully portrayed backwoods of Norway, pursued not only by the boy’s sinister father and his cronies, but by the Norwegian police. Every protagonist in this scenario is utterly convincing, and with the poignant relationship developing between Sheldon and the boy, stirring up an evocation of Sheldon’s own relationship with his dead son, Saul, the plot is multi-layered and compelling from start to finish. The motif of war runs strongly throughout the book, not only in Sheldon’s reminiscences, but in his reliance on the skills he gained in Korea to outwit those who pursue him and the boy, leading to a dramatic and heartfelt denouement which threatens all involved.
I can only say in closing that I would urge everyone to read this exceptional debut with its powerful and emotive themes, but this is also a book that retains all the tension of a totally authentic Scandinavian crime thriller. I cannot praise it highly enough and on this showing ‘Norwegian By Night’ could well be one of my top crime reads this year. An outstanding read.