Archives for posts with tag: CWA Dagger

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.

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Before I Go to SleepI should probably be reading the wildly popular thriller of the moment Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn but I rarely manage to keep up with current trends so, I guess, why start now. Instead I read an earlier crime sensation, 2011’s surprise hit novel Before I Go to Sleep.

Christine Lucas suffers from a rare form of amnesia. Each morning she wakes up with no memory of her life. She can’t even recognise her home or her husband, Ben. Most mornings Christine wakes thinking she’s still young, only to realise she’s actually middle-aged, having lived a whole life she can’t recall. Any memories she forms during the day are erased every night when she goes to sleep. In order to make sense of her disconnected life Christine begins, with the help of her doctor, to keep a journal and starts to see that what she has been told about her life isn’t always the truth. Probably the less said about the plot of Before I Go to Sleep the better. You just have to read it for yourself.

Christine’s fear and mistrust is terrifyingly relatable. She has to put complete trust in other people, in her husband, her doctor, her friend. Whatever they tell her about her life must be taken as truth, with no memories there’s no way to contradict them. Everyone can relate to wanting to see the truth for themselves in order to stop that niggling feeling that something isn’t right. But then for every lie, omission and obfuscation Christine encounters, there is a possible rational explanation. Perhaps, instead of someone being out to get her, she is simply paranoid? And S.J. Watson manages to make that possibility just as chilling as the alternative. I don’t spook that easily so I wouldn’t call Before I Go to Sleep scary, but it’s a disquieting and compelling novel. Watson’s concept stands out from other thrillers. There is no overblown conspiracy, just one woman trying to piece together her life. The resulting sense of dread is insidious, creeping under your skin slowly, as Christine, and you, veer between trust and doubt.

Before I Go to Sleep is a genuine page-turner. It reminded me of the film Memento (they share the piecing together of memories, albeit not quite the same harsh, violent intensity). I would’ve read it all in one sitting if I only could sit still for longer. The idea of a fractured mind and memories is unsettling and powerful. Memories are what make us who we are. Before I Go to Sleep is a crime novel but it’s also a high-concept exploration of domestic life. It’s about mistrust, terror and grief but rooted in the mundane, everyday details. Watson handles the complexity of Christine’s condition and the balance between routine and horror with ease. And he knows exactly when to divulge information for maximum effect.

Christine herself is a blank canvas. It’s the people who know her who impress their version of Christine onto her. It’s completely understandable since every morning she wakes up not knowing who she is, having to piece together her personality anew. But it does give Watson the difficult task of getting readers to bond with a character that is, by design, incomplete. But it’s a task he largely accomplishes. My only small gripe is that while Christine’s writerly flourishes in her diary make sense in context I sometimes felt the style was a bit heavy-handed given the circumstances under which she’s writing.

The way all thrillers are structured, a plot device needs to be in place to prevent the protagonist from simply telling the whole world what they know or, more often, readers are just expected to suspend their disbelief. It’s an irritating part of the formula. The very fabric of Before I Go to Sleep is woven with a solution to that annoyance, which I much appreciated. Here, Christine’s memory loss means she’s not even sure of what she knows, let alone if anything is really even wrong.

If you like thrillers Before I Go to Sleep is a must read. The build-up to the denouement is handled with skill and verve. At times I thought I knew what the ‘twist’ might be, but Watson is so adept at making you doubt yourself that it didn’t take anything away from the riveting conclusion.

I don’t usually read a lot of crime fiction. It’s not that I have anything against crime, I just like to wait until I find a superlative example of the genre. I love books like Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. It’s just that so many crime authors have about twenty books to their name, often featuring the author’s signature protagonist, in the same setting time after time. It doesn’t inspire hope in me that any of them will be original or unique. So after finding Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on a couple of best crime books of 2011 lists it seemed like a good book to start my quest for an exceptional crime offering.

In the small town of Chabot, Mississippi college student Tina Rutherford has gone missing, reminding everyone of the decades-earlier disappearance of teenager Cindy Walker. The number one suspect in the Walker case was, then-teenager, Larry Ott. Now a grown man, Larry was never arrested but has lived his life as a recluse, shunned by a town that never stopped believing he was guilty. The townspeople and local law enforcement are quick to assume that Larry is behind Tina’s disappearance as well, even when Larry is found shot in his home. As Silas Jones, Constable of Chabot, investigates the missing girl and Larry’s shooting both men remember their childhood friendship and the secrets they’ve both kept all these years.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter revolves around the past and its impact on the present. There’s nostalgia for a time before Cindy’s disappearance, before youthful choices came to define Silas and Larry’s lives. But even that childhood innocence was tainted by the lives of adults around them. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a brilliant meditation on courage and weakness, and the way memories are twisted by time. Franklin explores regret, isolation and shame through his elegiac portrait of Mississippi and the friendship between two boys, one black, and one white: headstrong, independent Silas and lonely, bookish Larry.

If you’re expecting an action-packed crime thriller you’ll probably be disappointed. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a more nuanced work, the mystery crackles quietly but intensely. I was impressed by the depth of emotion Franklin brings to the story. It’s far more than your average crime novel. Yes, murder and kidnapping serve as the impetus behind the plot but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter never feels confined or defined by its genre trappings. The pacing is excellent. Strands of narrative gradually come together, and relationships are revealed, all carefully building to its thrilling conclusion.

The novel moves between the present day kidnapping investigation and Silas and Larry’s boyhood memories. The recollections of the past are a real strength of the book. Even when exploring the boys’ youth Franklin maintains that delicate note of brooding menace that should be present when the reader already knows what the future has in store. Franklin wonderfully captures the sound and feel of the American South, at least in the opinion of someone who’s never been anywhere near. His writing isn’t heavy on description, but the little details he adds (Larry’s ‘father sat sipping his beer in his socks’) create an intimacy that brings the scene to life, without it becoming the focus. And the dialogue is rich and vibrant.

Thematically, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has more than a bit in common with the Booker prize shortlisted Snowdrops. Both deal with past wrongs, questions of morality and newfound self-awareness, but in very different ways, and yet one reminded me of the other. While I was reading I couldn’t help comparing the two, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is far more convincing and has more impact than Snowdrops could ever hope for. Franklin’s ability to create wonderfully rendered, memorable characters and impeccable dialogue makes Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a powerful mystery that stands out from its rivals.