Archive for December, 2013

519EtidIF6L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_“What am I going to do there? I’m an American. I’m a Jew. I’m eighty-two. I’m a retired watchmaker. A Marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there I’m unaware of ?”

Sheldon Horowitz, an eighty two year old marine sniper who fought in the Korean War, has gone to live with his granddaughter Rhea and her new husband Lars in Oslo after his wife Mabel. When a woman from the Balkans is attacked in the apartment on the floor above he opens the door and lets her and her young son into Rhea’s apartment. But the monster from upstairs kicks in the door, and as Sheldon and the little boy hide in the closet the mother is killed. Sheldon and the young boy, whom he names Paul, go on the run pursued by Kosovar drug dealers, the police, and also by Lars and Rhea who believe Sheldon is suffering from dementia. In fact he is possibly suffering from one of the great curses of old age outliving your contemporaries, and having a lot of memories that rush in at inconvenient times.

Throughout this fascinating twist on Nordic crime fiction Sheldon daydreams back over his eventful life, his service in Korea, his marriage, his guilt over the death of his son Saul in Vietnam, and being a Jew.

“It’s complicated, right? Technical ? I wouldn’t understand.” Bill shook his head and whistled. ” You Jews. You’re so clever. There’s nothing you’re not good at.”

Sheldon didn’t take the bait. “Staying out of trouble doesn’t seem to be our thing.”

I had sent Karen at Euro Crime my choices for my best five books of the year before I had read Norwegian By Night and now there is no question in my mind I should have included it. Norwegian By Night is a brilliant book full of insights into life, love and loss.

I felt empathy with this story because of my own family’s service in two world wars. I also know quite a bit about the US Marine Corps from my reading when I dreamt of going back to university to study history. My own brand of dementia. We have even driven through the Marine Corps camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the middle of a military convoy, waved through by a marine who looked about twelve years old. That was back in April 2001 in the days before 9/11 presumably enhanced the security.

Author Derek B. Miller has covered so much ground in a concise 290 pages from the complicity of some Norwegian police in the Holocaust to the Vietnam war, and the story of the Kosovo Liberation Army that went from fighting against Serbian ethnic cleansing to drug running and mass murders.

“Romeo and Juliet. Find a boy and girl from different sides who are fucking. Get the Serbian one to find out if the community is protecting the boy. In return, we don’t tell their parents. And their parents don’t kill them. Makes sense, no?”  

The author informs the reader about the naive optimism of Norwegian immigration policy and the determination of an old man to retain his dignity in a foreign land. The reader is educated with stories about Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, and Sheldon’s son Saul in Vietnam. It is a wide ranging novel discussing politics, war and the problems of old age. The supporting cast of characters are well drawn especially recently promoted police officer Sigrid Odegard and Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea, and the simple plot is enhanced by the flashbacks to Korea, the USA and Vietnam. 

Hiding a North Korean in Norway is hard. Hiding one in New York is like hiding a tree in a forest.

This is one of those novels that has great characters, as well as blending humour and violence in a way that provides very readable crime fiction that both educates and entertains.

The author Derek B. Miller was born in Boston and is now living with his family in Oslo where he is director of The Policy Lab, and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. He has a PhD in International relations from the University of Geneva, and a MA in National Security Studies from Georgetown, in cooperation with St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Norwegian By Night won the CWA John Creasy Debut Dagger for 2013. 

Seven hundred and seventy -two Norwegian men, women and children, who were Jewish, were rounded up by the Norwegian police and the Germans, and deported. Most were sent to Auschwitz.

Thirty-four survived.        

51AQPJFPPKLThe terrible weather, hiccups with my computer, and a very busy time with relatives and friends mean that my Christmas good 519EtidIF6L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_wishes are a little late this year. But I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.

This year because of illness and other commitments we only had four instead of the usual seven or more at Christmas lunch. It seems like only yesterday when there were a dozen 0r more of us round the table but………that’s life. I really enjoyed a quiet Christmas Day evening watching a recording of the film Casablanca with my 15 year old granddaughter. I know the film off by heart having watched it numerous times, and could not resist stopping the recording several times to point out the special passages, political ramifications and catch phrases. She was kind and said despite my annoying interruptions it was a  very good film; and hopefully my verbal historical annotations might help her with her exams.

My reading over the last couple of weeks featured a prize winning novel that was absolutely brilliant. I like reading books in my comfort zone and this wonderful novel fitted me like a glove; I refer to Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller. I was very pleased that so many other people seemed to agree with my view even though they do not share my background. [A review to follow next week].

 I will end my blogging year with a quote from Norwegian By Night. Sheldon Horowitz as his granddaughter Rhea attempts to persuade him to go to live with her and Lars in Oslo comes up with this gem.

“What am I going to do there? I’m an American. I’m a Jew. I’m eighty-two. I’m a retired widower. A Marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there I’m unaware of?”       

51DiUU6W8XL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_ The complexity of The Dreyfus Affair means that writing a book about the gross miscarriage of justice that divided France so deeply might J_accuseproduce something that is a difficult read. But Robert Harris, author of superb books like Fatherland and Enigma, has by the simple expedient of making the story a novel retold in the words of Colonel Georges Picquart, newly appointed head of the statistical section, has brought a clarity to the events of 1895-1906, and in the process written a brilliant thriller.

As a teenager I learned the basic facts of the case; a Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer from Alsace, was convicted of espionage on the flimsy evidence of handwriting on the ‘bordereau’ a document retrieved from a waste paper basket at the German Embassy. He suffered a terrible public degradation ceremony, the episode which begins this novel, and was subsequently exiled to spend a lifetime in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island, a hell hole off the coast of French Guiana. It later becomes clear that another officer, a low life Major Walsin Esterhazy is the traitor, but the Army are unwilling to accept this evidence as they believe overturning the verdict of the military court will weaken the nation’s confidence in the Army. Blatant anti-Semitism masquerading as concern for the nation, and the reaction of the powerful to any challenge.

Of course he would betray us, because he hates us; he has hated us all along because he isn’t like us, and knows he never will be, for all his money: he is just…..A regular Jew!

This stance is supported by large elements of the population who would rather see the traitor Esterhazy go free than the innocent Jew Dreyfus be released from a captivity. A captivity which he bears stoically still proclaiming his innocence. When Colonel Picquart, who at first believes Dreyfus to be guilty and does not particularly like the man, becomes convinced of his innocence and thus of Esterhazy’s guilt he is packed off by his superiors on a lengthy tour of provincial France, and then exiled to Tunisia, where they attempt to send him on a suicidal mission into the desert.

‘But if we discover Esterhazy was the traitor and Dreyfus wasn’t…?’

‘Well we won’t discover that, will we?  

Thanks to the efforts of the Dreyfus family the Affair attracts the attention of many important people. France becomes a divided nation. The Dreyfusards importantly include among their numbers the novelist Emile Zola, and the politician and newspaper editor Georges Clemenceau.

Esterhazy is acquitted in a farcical court martial, Emile Zola writes a famous letter to L’Aurore and is convicted of libel, Dreyfus faces a second trial and is found guilty again, although his sentence is commuted to ten years………..

The ironic end of this story is that Alfred Dreyfus, is the only leading character in this tragic drama who serves in the French Army during the Great War, and then he outlives all of them dying in 1935 at the age of 75.

An Officer and A Spy is a very fine novel full of great characters, plot and atmosphere. Robert Harris has got inside the personality of his protagonist, Georges Picquart, cleverly used the real life characters to give an account of the real life events embellished with a dialogue that reflects the atmosphere of Paris in that period. It helped the author that the Affair is full of memorable villains with Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a rogue, traitor and embezzler who awarded himself the title of count while gambling away his family fortune; and those responsible for manipulating the evidence Major Hubert-Joseph Henry; Colonel Armand du Paty de Clam, and their pathetic superiors Generals Mercier, Billot, de Boisdeffre and Gonse. With a plot full of lawyers, shootings, forgery, gay diplomats, suspected murders, surete detectives, prisons, duels, beautiful women, corruption, court martials and treachery in high places An Officer and A Spy has more than enough action to keep the reader turning the pages.

In order to write such a superb novelisation Robert Harris meticulously researched original sources, letters, court transcripts and newspapers of the time to produce a thriller with a strong message about incompetent security services and virulent anti-Semitism that is relevant to our time.

‘It is a great thing to have done all that, and at the end of it to have been appointed to the Cabinet of the French Republic.’

‘And yet, you know, the strange truth is I would never have attained it without you.’

‘No, my General,’ says Dreyfus, ‘you attained it because you did your duty.’


An Officer and A Spy has already won the National Book Award Popular Fiction Book of the Year, in my opinion it has to be a contender for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Fiction Prize.      

Ove Bakkerud goes to close up his summer cottage at Stavern, 100km southwest of Oslo, for the winter. He discovers it has been broken  into51BvycWWroL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_ and ransacked. After reporting the break-in he notices a light in the cottage owned by Thomas Ronningen, a television personality. If Ronningen’s cottage has been burglarised as well the police will prioritise the matter. But when he arrives at Rottingen’s cottage he finds a dead body. William Wisting chief of police for the Department of Larvik the local town is in charge of the investigation, which is complicated once they find other cottages have been ransacked, discover another body, and Wisting’s daughter Line, an investigative journalist with an unsuitable boyfriend, decides to spend time in their summer cottage nearby.

Closed for Winter is the seventh book in the Wisting series, and the second to be translated into English after Dregs, which I haven’t read. This makes it somewhat difficult for me to fairly judge the book as the characters were strangers whom I had not got to know over previous books. But I am able to say it is a solid police procedural full of detailed investigative methods. 

By far the best part of the novel is when William Wisting and Martin Ahlberg travel to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, to question the associates of one of the men found murdered near the location of the burglaries. This allows the author to point out facts that in another context might be considered politically incorrect. Do the Schengen agreements that allow free movement across international borders for citizens of member countries facilitate criminal activities?

It had surprised him to learn that there were no more than 3.6 million inhabitants, since Lithuanians comprised a disproportionately large proportion of the total number of foreigners in Norwegian crime statistics.

The picture painted of Lithuania is not a pretty one, with massive amounts of stolen goods being sold in open air markets that provide too much employment to be closed down by the police.

The contrasts in wealth were more noticeable after nightfall. Open prostitution and poverty existed side by side with rich men emerging from expensive cars in the company of long-legged blondes. 

This is a serious book and while it lacks humour it does not lack humanity, and a strange kind of morality. 

‘We have the same sun and same moon in Norway and Lithuania,’ she said. ‘We live on the same earth, but our world is split in two. We are poor. You are rich.’…………………………..

‘It’s better to steal from Norway, because it is a wealthy country, than a poor country where people don’t have so much.

Jorn Lier Horst’s latest book The Hunting Dogs won the prestigious Nordic Glass Key so I will definitely read his next book in this series. Closed for Winter is a good crime fiction novel with some interesting social commentary, but it is not at the Leif G.W. Persson, Jo Nesbo or Hakan Nesser level because the characters are a little bit dull.    

51QVPdKjBiL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_You can read my review of John Lawton’s Then We Take Berlin at Euro Crime.

John Lawton once again uses historical fact as a framework to build a story with larger than life characters. Cockneys in the Blitz, Belsen and post war Berlin…..I can’t wait for the sequel.


51gVF35NXJLIn an apartment block in Solna, Karl Danielsson, an elderly accountant, has his head smashed in with a cast-iron saucepan lid. He is-

The classic Swedish murder victim, if you like. In today’s terminology. ‘A single, middle-aged man, socially marginalized, with a serious alcohol dependency.’ 

Or in Detective Superintendent Evert Backstrom’s concise assessment ‘Your standard pisshead, basically,’. 

Karl’s battered body had been discovered by the newspaper deliveryman Septimus Afokeli, a Somali refugee. What should be a simple crime to solve turns out to be a bit more convoluted. It is not as first thought a typical argument between drunks leading to violent murder. With Evert Backstrom in charge of the investigation, and having just been ordered by the police doctor to adjust his lifestyle to something a lot more healthy, anything can happen. And does.

This like all of Professor Persson’s crime novels that have been translated into English is a very clever book, full of great characters, black humour and gritty social commentary and satire; but I am a slightly ambivalent about this one. The reason, Backstrom is an acquired taste and his racist and homophobic attitudes do become a bit wearing when repeated over and over again. The plot could have done with more of the strong female characters Anna Holt, Backstrom’s ultimate boss, and Annika Carlsson, despite her strange devotion to the fat little swine, and a bit less of Backstrom.  

‘Thoughts?’ Backstrom said, looking round at the other five people in the room. Five mental cases, if you asked him. One Russian, one pretty little darkie, one attack-dyke, one retarded folk-dancer and one Woodentop. The curse of being in charge, he thought.

The plot which follows the investigation into the Danielsson murder and other possibly related crimes sometimes veers from biting satire to farce, but I am prepared to put up with that because the Leif G.W. Persson books are always interesting and provide a different, perhaps more honest perspective, on the Swedish social democratic utopia that seems to have lost its way. Evert Backstrom, is a horrid hateful amoral gluttonous anti-hero, whose only redeeming feature is unfortunately his good luck; but despite him I can recommend He Who Kills The Dragon as an intelligent thought provoking read that will make you wonder how many Backstroms are there in Stockholm’s finest. 

In 1939 Heydrich [German SS General Reinhard Heydrich] at the initiative of the Swedes, had been appointed chairman of the International Police Organization [Interpol]. The following year he was awarded the Great Gold Police Medal for his ‘exemplary contribution to maintaining law and order in Czechoslovakia hit hard by the winds of war.’

That is probably more offensive than anything Backstrom could say, or think.