“American By Day” would make a wonderful movie. It’s entertaining, original and accessible. Like most wonderful movies it’s underpinned by a serious intent to take a fresh look at difficult issues and a refusal simply to rearrange clichés into new patterns like turning a kaleidoscope.
“American By Day” is as easy and as amusing to read as a Carl Hiaasen novel but where Hiaasen is satisfied with using the eccentric to highlight the absurd, Derek Miller uses rational thought to challenge us to leave our pre-conceptions behind.
Set in 2008, the year of Obama’s election, the book follows Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård, the Oslo police detective from Miller’s wonderful “Norwegian By Night”, to America in search of her missing brother.
At the end of “Norwegian By Night”, Sigrid shot and killed a man who was running towards her, armed with a kitchen knife. At the beginning of “American By Day”, Sigrid is officially cleared of any wrong-doing. This troubles her. She cannot let go of the idea that her assumptions and choices resulted in a young man’s death. She wonders what assumptions and what choices would have to change in order for the young man not to die.
She returns to her father’s farm to think about this. When her father tries to comfort her by saying he knows her well enough to know:
“…You wouldn’t have shot a man unless you thought it was necessary.”
““Maybe I shouldn’t have thought it necessary. That’s the part the police department is ignoring.”
With these questions fresh in her mind, Sigrid finds herself dispatched to Upstate New York to search for her brother who has gone missing. She arrives to find herself in the middle of an investigation into the death by fenestration of her brother’s girlfriend. Her brother is the main suspect.
As Sigrid tries to use a mix of rational analysis and deep cunning to prevent her brother being killed by the police searching for him, we are lead through an exploration of American policing and the why so many encounters between the police and black men end up with the black men dead.
It would be easy for a book dealing with these topics to become a list of competing dog-whistle positions in which no-one listens or learns. Derek Miller avoids this by doing three things: letting me look at America through the lens of a strong, intelligent Norwegian woman who is coming to terms with what she wants from life and what she’s able to have; by creating a wonderful local Sheriff who is a truly original free-thinking, bible-quoting, cowboy boot-wearing man who wants to make things better and who acts as a foil for Sigrid’s point of view and by using humour to keep the whole thing human. He knows that, without humour, the reality of life is inaccessible.
Through the discussion between Sigrid, the Sheriff and one of his Deputies, we are invited to see differently, to think differently and to act differently. It is argued that, if the results feel wrong yet the individual steps to that result feel right, then we are missing something. Perhaps we are failing to see something because we are blinded by our assumptions. Perhaps we are choosing not to see something because seeing it would force us to do something even if it’s only admitting our own powerlessness or lack of courage.
Miller prevents this from being an abstract philosophical debate by keeping the questions and the consequences personal and immediate and by a careful and effective use of humour.to make the people in the story more human and to strip away the reader’s ability to hide behind ideas so that we don’t have to think about what we don’t want to have to see.
Humour at its best helps us step back and see things differently, deflating pomposity, acknowledging the absurd and ruefully accepting our shared imperfections. Humour at it worst drives us towards hate, disparagement and a reinforcement of belief in the face of inconvenient facts. Both types of humour tell us a great deal about who we are and how we really relate to each other.
“American By Day” works as a standalone novel. It’s funny, has an interesting mystery at its heart and deals with issues that are at the centre of American identity without being simplistic or pompous.
The language in “American By Day” is also a delight, in a quiet, unostentatious way. As I read the ebook, I found myself constantly stopping to highlight descriptions that snagged my attention like fragments of brightly coloured glass in the sunlight. Here’s an example commenting on the library Sigrid’s father built in his home when his wife died:
“After Astrid died he filled the void of words unspoken with the new silence of books unread.”
Here’s a how Sigrid thinks of the lone travellers she sees eating in a 24hour Diner in the early hours of the morning:
“They hunch over food that is making them sicker and older but tastes familiar and comforting and reminds them of happier times when they were not here.”
Here’s how Sigrid describes the impact of her mother’s death on her five -year-old-self:
“The absence of her mother created a strangeness to the world, as if the palette of the sky had inexplicably shifted and the mind never became fully accepting of that new condition.”
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a new light on old problems or who enjoys a well-written, funny, sometimes outrageous, mystery.
Go to the link below for an interview with Derek Miller if you’d like to know more about him and how he writes.