Norwegian by NightSheldon Horowitz is 82 years old and has just moved to Norway with his granddaughter, Rhea, and her husband, Lars. His wife died recently, his family think he has dementia, and he’s haunted by the death of his son, Saul, years earlier in the Vietnam War. Sheldon blames himself for Saul’s death having spent Saul’s childhood touting the honour of fighting for your country. One morning Sheldon witnesses his neighbour’s murder and manages to save her young son from her killer. The boy and Sheldon go on the run together through the Norwegian countryside in an attempt to protect the boy from the murderer and his Balkan gang. Meanwhile, the Oslo police, and Rhea and Lars are trying to find Sheldon before he gets himself killed.

Against this crime backdrop Derek B. Miller has woven in scenes from Sheldon’s past, often scenes of war – Korea and Vietnam. Sheldon missed out on fighting in World War I, he was too young, but he thinks of it often. He feels guilty, as a Jew, that he couldn’t go and fight the Nazis. As atonement he later fought in Korea, telling his wife he was a supply clerk and didn’t see action. But years later Sheldon changed his story – he was a Marine sniper, but he kept quiet about it to spare his family worrying. But by then nobody believed him. His wife was convinced he had dementia or it was a fantasy brought on by the loss of Saul. Then there are imagined scenes of Saul in Vietnam – Sheldon’s attempt to relive the moment of Saul’s death despite never having been there.

Norwegian by Night is another story of Jewish experience, read right after May We Be Forgiven. But where May We Be Forgiven was confronting and brash, Norwegian by Night is wonderfully poignant. Sheldon is a great central character – resourceful, smart and fiercely loyal yet kind of racist (he is convinced Koreans are hunting him down because of what happened in the war) and antagonistic (he insists on using his Penthouse coffee mug from the 1970s despite Rhea’s protests). And his sanity and memory are constantly called into question. But Sheldon’s not really an unlikely hero, he’s just old. And he’s struggling to find the dignity in old age. In his youth he was a vital man. He was adventurous – he spent time after the war travelling the world taking photos of unwilling subjects, which he became quite famous for – and he was patriotic enough to go to war without being blind to America’s problems. After an incident where Sheldon was refused access to a country club in the 1960s for being Jewish, he told Saul,

This country is what you make it…It isn’t good and it isn’t bad…That means you don’t make excuses for America’s bullshit. That’s what the Nazis and Commies do. The fatherland. The motherland. America isn’t your parent. It’s your kid. And today, I made America a place where you get your nose broken for telling a Jew he can’t play a round of golf. The only one allowed to tell me I can’t play golf is the ball.

The scenes of Sheldon bonding with the little boy, Paul, are funny and beautiful. Paul doesn’t speak English so Sheldon has a great time talking to him about things too complex for a boy to understand. Sheldon’s musings on God, Noah and morality, in particular, demonstrate depth and grace. He asks is it impossible for God to make amends,

how does he know when he’s done wrong? After all, does being all-knowing include self-knowledge? As He is the source of everything, can he possibly deny His own actions and condemn them? Against what? What’s the yardstick other than himself?

Sheldon comes to the conclusion that there is a morality separate from God, an inherent human morality that governs us.

It must be difficult writing a novel about a place that you live but are not native to, as is the case with Derek B. Miller. Norwegian by Night was written in English but was first published in Norwegian. It affects the way you describe the place, you know what will seem odd to an outsider because you were one yourself. Norwegian by Night is littered with the differences that must have struck Miller on arrival but that a Norwegian probably wouldn’t give a second thought to, like that Oslo isn’t equipped to fuel stoves with natural gas. It’s a bit like being taken on a tour of the city instead of being completely immersed in a new culture. That approach doesn’t always work but here it’s exactly what’s needed. It allows Miller to really get into the minds of his many immigrant characters.

At its most basic level Norwegian by Night reminded me of another crime novel with a foreigner in a strange land scenario, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops. Norwegian by Night is far superior. Derek B. Miller packs a hell of a lot into a relatively simple story – Jewish experience, dementia and ageing, Norwegian history and identity, conflict between Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and cultural integration. And he balances it all brilliantly by finding, in Sheldon, the perfect character to bring everything together.