A first-time novelist has turned out a terrific thriller that is not to be overlooked for summer reading – or for any season. Also coming off the shelves: return performances by popular authors Carl Hiaasen and Alexander McCall Smith, who manage to be both productive and consistently entertaining, plus the third mystery in a series by a Buffalo-raised writer who lives in Brooklyn but writes about World War II England with ease.
• Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller, Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt; 292 pages; $26.
This is one of the best books of the season, of any genre. Derek B. Miller brings us so completely into the world of 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz, a lifelong New Yorker transplanted to Oslo for this fish-out-of-water thriller, that when the story is over, the loss of its having ended is overcome by the richness of having read it. There is no magic here, no shocking surprise or brilliant revelation. It is no more or less than a great story told in writing that is clear and powerful, detailed without being ornate. In a word, it is wonderful.
Miller has designed a hero who is as individual as they come – an aged Jewish watch repairman and former Korean War sniper who still mourns his son, Saul, who was killed in Vietnam. But before he died, Saul fathered a child with a casual girlfriend, who left the baby for Sheldon and his now-dead wife to raise. The grandchild, now grown, has brought her beloved grandfather to live in the strange land of Norway, where echoes of World War II and more recent conflicts resonate in unexpected ways through the Scandinavian countryside, and through Sheldon’s odd new life.
The story and Sheldon both move effortlessly between the painful past and a vivid present, with Sheldon using all the wits he has remaining to protect a speechless boy he calls Paul. Caught in the middle of a fight that is not his, Sheldon does what many others refused to do many years ago, when they watched from behind their curtains while Hitler’s Nazis took away their neighbors. The results are simple and stunning.
Miller’s first novel is not the sort of thriller you would expect from an author who is also a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Something on the order of John LeCarre seems more likely, but there is none of that upper echelon spycraft here.
Just an old man, making one last stand against the evil he sees in the world, fighting for his people, his son, and a little boy he doesn’t know.
• Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen, Knopf; 317 pages; $26.95.
The riot of bad behavior in “Bad Monkey” has an initial randomness to it that would worry a reader unfamiliar with Hiaasen’s ability to create a real and cohesive world out of the craziness that is Florida. And, even as the state itself continues its crusade to out-crazy Hiaasen’s fictional version, he still manages to out-do it, if barely. For “Bad Monkey,” he leaves the urban Atlantic Coast for Key West and other islands, where our hero Yancy, a former Miami cop, is doing “roach patrol” duty inspecting restaurants after being busted from detective for attacking his girlfriend’s husband in the nether regions with a vacuum cleaner.
The mystery begins when a fishing tourist lands a severed arm and the local sheriff wants to keep things quiet. Yancy, however, is eager to earn back his badge, so he starts a freelance investigation that leads to a rich widow showing little signs of grief, a random murder outside a local bar, out-of-town developers, a voodoo queen and one really bad monkey – a former acting monkey kicked off the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies for general nastiness.
Yancy, with little to do in his restaurant work, gradually fills in the outlines of several different crimes, with the help and romantic attentions of a Miami coroner and Neville Stafford, a native Bahamian and the monkey’s owner.
The tone of the book, another solid effort by Hiaasen, can be summed up when Yancy first spots Neville, leaning dejectedly on a bar.
“Who is that gentleman?” he asks the bartender.
“Dot’s Neville Stafford. Poor mon bin out all night lookin’ for his monkey.”
“We’ve all been there. Let me buy him a beer.”
Yes, we’ve all been there. And welcome back.
• Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith, Pantheon Books; 240; $22.
The prolific McCall Smith ventures from the worlds of his gentle detective books, those featuring Isabel Dalhousie in Scotland and Precious Ramotswe in Botswana, for a short-story collection masquerading as a novel. The tales are a mix of romance and mild mystery – no brutal murders or severed limbs here – that could easily help pass the time on a cabin porch, though the setting is a compartment on a London-bound train.
Even is this compact form, McCall Smith displays his gift for touching on the emotions and interactions that make people so interesting.
His many books are always more about character than plot, and the passengers in “Trains and Lovers” represent that in perhaps his purest form. We know where they started, and we know where they are going. No one is going to disappear; instead, by the end, these four strangers on a train are revealed to us, heart and soul.
• His Majesty’s Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal, Bantam Trade Paperback Original; 336 pages; $15.
Maggie Hope, first met in “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary,” returns for another adventure, set as the Nazis are beginning their European conquest. Maggie heads to Berlin as a special operations agent. The novel has nice nostalgic touches, like the cyanide pill Maggie carries in case of capture, doilies on dressers and little girls in ringlets, while letting its heroine mature as the world around her grows darker.
Author Elia MacNeal is a Western New York native and Nardin graduate. “His Majesty’s Hope” is the third in a planned four-novel arc of Maggie Hope mysteries.
Melinda Miller is a News staff reporter.