Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2018, 352 pages
A gripping and timely novel that follows Sigrid - the dry-witted detective from Derek B. Miller's best-selling debut Norwegian by Night - from Oslo to the United States on a quest to find her missing brother.
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. Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life. Working with - or, if necessary, against - the police, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the backwoods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further.
Refreshingly funny, slyly perceptive, American by Day secures Derek B. Miller's place as one of our most imaginative and entertaining novelists.
This book is a sequel to Norwegian by Night, which featured a cranky American octagenarian unhappily transplanted to Norway, offering curmudgeonly wisdom as he tried to save a young boy from getting killed by mobsters.
One of the secondary POV characters from that book, Sigrid Ødegård, now becomes the main character as she travels to America in search of her brother, who has disappeared following the death of his ladyfriend.
Sigrid's adventures in America are those of an appalled tourist, viewing America — "a very weird country" — as an alien and not terribly friendly land. She is a less affectionate observer than Tocqueville. She is a cop from a country where police almost never kill people, tormented by her recent experience in which she did.
She and her older brother, Marcus, have never been close, but they've tried. Their relationship never quite recovered from the death of their mother, by cancer, when Sigrid was a child. Her father thinks her brother needs her, and also that the two of them need some together time. So Sigrid sets off to upstate New York, where she finds herself roped into the local sheriff's investigation.
Sigrid and Irv are an interesting and humorous pair. They are the antithesis of "buddy cops." Sheriff Irv is actually clever, low-key, and hilarious at times, a former divinity student and a devout Christian who nonetheless has a jaded and pragmatic view of policing. He just wants to resolve all this without anyone getting shot. Sigrid is wise, pragmatic, and a bit humorless, and she's appalled and a little self-righteous about the failures of American policing.
"You have an interesting problem, Sigrid," Irv says. "It's like, you're right about everything, and yet it never seems to matter. You're a Greek myth of some kind, but I can't put my finger on it."
Sigrid's brother's girlfriend, it turns out, was an African-American professor. She fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the sixth floor of a building, and Marcus was the last one with her. This follows in the wake of several other deaths in the black community, including the shooting of a young boy by a trigger-happy cop in an obvious analog to Tamir Rice. So the African-American community is angry, the situation is enflamed by the media (who is happy to publish "fake news" about Sigrid's involvement when it can't get the real story), and for Sheriff Irv, it's a no-win situation. Marcus may or may not have killed his lover. Arresting him may or may not serve justice, failure to arrest him will be another example of white people getting away with killing black people, but arresting him, offering resolution to her family, only for it to turn out that he's innocent (or worse, "innocent"), might be even worse.
This is all treated with a deft, humane touch and dialog packed with wry, profound humor.
"I'm supposed to tell people — black people, and black people only — that violence isn't the way. How long can that message remain credible, do you think?"
"Reverend, we're looking at an imminent problem, right over there!"
Fred Green raises a hand and interrupts. "The police murdered Jeffrey Simmons. I don't know and I don't care if those bikers were involved. What I do know is that there's a line of cops over there with rifles facing black people and protecting those..." Green does not choose a word. "Those black people, Sheriff, are American citizens. Their taxes bought the bullets in those guns. Some of those people elected you, Sheriff. Why do you think that is?"
"This isn't a damn game, Fred. Now let's go mingle."
The reverend doesn't move. Irv holds his temper, but his voice is not steady enough to conceal his anger. "Please, Fred. Those people are not gathered to protest police violence. They are there to extract justice from those bikers, because Roger Mandel reported that Sigrid is a white supremacist and her brother might have killed Lydia. The facts are she's a Norwegian cop here to find her broken-hearted brother, who probably didn't kill Lydia, and definitely has no connection to that gang over there. I take your point about the meta-politics here, Fred, but we don't decide right and wrong at the level of national dysfunction. It's right down here where the people are. So let's go calm people down. Get their attention. Say a terrible mistake has been made. And then we can introduce Roger Mandel, and throw him right under the bus and let the crowd have at him. Once they're fed and digesting, they'll probably calm down."
"And then what?" asks Fred Green.
"Then Melinda is going to stand up there to try and disperse the crowd."
"Whoa, how's that?" Melinda asks, suddenly engaged.
"I think they're less likely to be violent against a woman."
"So why am I wearing a bullet-proof vest?"
"I might be wrong."
This is Derek Miller's third book. In each one, he has taken on broad and intractable social issues, and treated them with nuance and a multi-sided perspective that treats no one as unambiguously right or wrong, but makes it clear how inadequate good intentions can be, and how a flawed, unjust system can consistently produce results that are "correct" but wrong. He neither villifies nor exonerates the police here, and while Sigrid has a typically Scandinavian attitude towards American policing, gun violence, and racism, she doesn't come off like an authorial mouthpiece. Indeed, her brother's failures in relating to his African-American lover contrast with her own inability to fully relate to, or trust, an American cop who's actually pretty smart and on her side.
This is a book is about race relations and the justice system, with the outward guise of a police detective novel. It's pretty funny and hip (#BLM might have been trending in 2016-2017 when Miller wrote this book, but it hadn't exploded the way it has more recently), and while Sigrid is actually the least interesting character, she's still pretty cool and her quiet earnestness lets the secondary characters shine more brightly around her.
Also by Derek Miller: My reviews of Norwegian by Night and The Girl in Green.
My complete list of book reviews.