Derek B. Miller- American By Day

She knew it was a weird place. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. America. And not someplace interesting, either: upstate New York.
It is election season, 2008, and Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life.
To find her older brother, she needs the help of the local police who appear to have already made up their minds about the case. Working with – or, if necessary, against ― someone actually named Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the back woods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further…

Following the absolutely stunning Norwegian By Night which has been a stalwart recommend of mine as a bookseller, it was with some degree of excitement that I greeted the arrival of American By Day. Instead of keeping you in suspense as to my reaction to this book, I will quickly say that it has already claimed a position in my top reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

This book reunites us with Norwegian police chief inspector Sigrid Odegard, who finds herself on a journey, both professional and personal, to track down her missing brother in upstate New York. By marrying the disparate methods of beliefs and practice of law enforcement between Odegard and her American counterpart Sheriff Irving ‘Irv’ Wylie, Miller weaves his dialogue between them with emotional punch, feisty exchanges and differences of opinion, but never losing sight of the fact that they are both are fundamentally on the same side, albeit moulded and shaped by differing social influences. The verbal sparring, but growing mutual respect, is beautifully depicted, and the frisson of tension between them never feels contrived or clichéd as is all too common in crime fiction.

Odegard’s character in particular carries with it a weight of self doubt, constant self appraisal and moments of vulnerability that really resonate with the reader, and she is without doubt one of the most roundly drawn, authentic, and empathetic female characters that I have encountered of late. As she grapples with the gaps in language, cultural differences, and her growing fearfulness as to her brother’s fate, Miller effortlessly carries the reader on her journey of discovery and epiphany, engaging us completely as the story progresses. The dialogue throughout the book is beautifully controlled, infused with wit, gaps in understanding, and envelops the reader in the definition of the characters, their relationships, their emotions and how they perceive and seek to make sense of the world around them.

By aligning these protagonists from two entirely different cultures, Miller has afforded himself the opportunity to provide a mirror to the social and racial issues that plague American society both in the timeline of 2008, with the election looming, and perhaps more pertinently how these conflicts plague American life still. One review I read of this book made a sniffy comment about Miller’s didacticism, and yes, there is a strong sense of authorial comment pervading the book, which is inevitable in the time period, and with the social, racial and political issues the narrative gives rise to. However, I think any reader with a modicum of intelligence will have the gumption to embrace the author’s more cerebral observations, be they objective or subjective, and process this information for themselves. Personally, I had no problem with Miller’s exploration of the American psyche, the ever present issues of racial division, police brutality and so on, as I don’t believe that anyone can claim ignorance as to the existence of these divisive issues. Harking back to the quote from Karin Slaughter that crime fiction is the best medium to reflect the true ills and division of society, this is the lasting impression of this book for me. I found Miller’s juxtaposition of a compelling and emotive plot, with the exploration of race, violence, mental illness and social conflict a perfect blend, and his balance between the two streams of narrative are never less that completely absorbing.

I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Doubleday for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karim Miske- Arab Jazz

 

arab1Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.

The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?

Sometimes, when reviewing books regularly there is an almost fixed template in your mind to construct your thoughts and feelings about a book. You provide an overview of the waxing and waning of a plot, the strength of the characterisation, the use of location and so on to formulate your critique. However, occasionally you are confronted with a book where you cannot resort to this more simplistic template, and even begin to question your own ability to find the words to describe your reading experience of the book in question. This is the dilemma I faced with Arab Jazz. So I will bumble on in my own sweet way- bear with me reader…

I read this book a few weeks ago immediately in the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris which stunned and shocked us all. Perhaps reading this book at such an apposite time provided me with a more visceral reaction to the book, but in hindsight, the strong messages that Miske conveys throughout the book regarding religious tolerance and intolerance are entirely in tune with the contemporary social tensions raised by religious difference. Casting its light on three secular groups, comprising of Muslims, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Miske provides a balanced and objective study of all three, impartially conveying to the reader the best and worst aspects of all and the protagonists linked to each. Instead, he succinctly reveals the human failings and frailties of each, the black shadow of fundamentalism, and the propensity for greed and violence no matter what faith or race defines you. The melting pot of characters, and the differing natures of their personal interactions form the very heart of this novel, across faiths, class, occupations and even continents (as the action pivots out to America) , thus transcending this book above any conventional tag of a ‘crime novel’, and leading us to the beating heart of a multicultural, multi-faith contemporary European city. In some ways this feels like a love letter to Miske’s adopted city, powerfully illustrating the frustrations inherent in modern society, but by the same token, replete with a sense of the author’s love for this complicated and multi-faceted city. It works beautifully when combined with the socio-political issues of the book, and our own newly formed perceptions of Parisian society.

The central crime of the novel is the hook to add all of Miske’s weightier issues on to, and works well with this in mind. With his two disparate police protagonists- both strong and engaging characters- the plot unfolds at a good pace, slowly inveigling the separate groups of characters that Miske introduces us to, with their singular ways of life and beliefs. The opening murder also gives the author the added scope to introduce a most tentative and heartfelt, albeit slightly stumbling, love affairs that I have ever read, that carries all the simplistic honesty of those great love affairs from classic fiction, and adds a residual warmth to the more weighty issues that Miske addresses.

This is an intelligent, multi-layered and objective novel, that will make you think and increase your awareness of the differences that lay at the heart of any modern society. Aside from a few less fluid passages- perhaps slightly lost in translation- the book consistently flows in pace and plot. You will feel emotionally invested in the character’s lives, and most importantly of all feel that you have read a book that deserves to be read. And if this one doesn’t feature in my books of the year, I will eat my own foot. Possibly.

Born in 1964 in Abidjan to a Mauritanian father and a French mother, Karim Miské grew up in Paris before leaving to study journalism in Dakar. He now lives in France, and is making documentary films on a wide range of subjects including deafness, for which he learned sign language, and the common roots between the Jewish and Islamic religions. He runs a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th arrondissement and has started writing TV scripts. Arab Jazz is the author’s first novel. Visit the author’s website here

Follow this link to hear an upcoming BBC Radio 3 programme (11/2/15) featuring Karim Miske and Aatish Taseer talking about contemporary France.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the reading copy)