Thoughtful, gripping and very entertaining

Peter Stupples reviews Derek B. Miller's American By Day, published by Penguin Random House. 

Derek B. Miller's novel is largely set in the United States where the main character, Sigrid Odergard, a middle-aged Norwegian senior police officer, is searching for her missing older brother wanted for the murder of his black American girlfriend, a professor of race relations.

This, however, is not a standard police and crime novel. It highlights deep racial scars and misunderstandings, and generational guilt, problems of human nature where systems of nurture and ignorance of history sometimes serve us less well.

The narrative is confidently constructed by a talented, sensitive, intelligent writer with a wicked sense of humour. The novel reads not simply as entertainment, but also as a study in moral philosophy, taking us through a series of family tragedies that act as the basis for a well-informed debate about social troubles of our times, suggesting changes of behaviour that might lessen our worries and inform our political sensibilities when the daily news seems deliberately to exacerbate our panic and dull our acuity of mind.

The hero and, at first, unlikely moral philosopher, is Irving Wylie, the local sheriff (elected district head of police) of an upper New York State county on the Canadian border. Wylie has to cope with the tangled consequences of the arrival on his turf of a well-trained and highly articulate female officer from Norway flying in to save her brother from rifle-toting American lawmen, who are keen to shoot first and, if really pushed, ask questions later.

Odergard challenges Wylie's professional competency. His folk-ways and political appointment, rather than police training, shock the European, but her preference for precipitous action rather than social wisdom only creates problems. Wylie averts disasters, clearing up any mess along the way, and guides the passions of locals and outsiders into calmer waters.

We warm to Wylie from his first to last appearance. His wit and gentle humour, in the face of serious, sometimes criminal, dilemmas, infuses the plot with a deep humanity, saving lives and making for the best possible outcomes in an otherwise hopeless situation.

Along the way Miller uses Wylie's wisdom to examine in some depth critical interracial issues - the shooting of black youths by white policemen, cross-racial sexual relations, the divide in society between the haves and have-nots that are, in this narrative, the tragic residuum of slavery and colonisation, the dark sides of the Age of Enlightenment, that will bedevil us all for decades to come.

The well-trained and well-read Norwegian, by contrast, displays a more dour Nordic directness that gradually mellows under the influence of the more thoughtful Wylie's handling of the complexities of human relations.

Miller's credentials - an American who lives in Oslo - and skills as a writer underwrite a convincing narrative. He handles the crime novel with compelling assurance (if, at times, with forgivable license) as well as leaving readers with a lot to think about in the way they view themselves as actors in the world around them: a thoughtful, gripping and very entertaining read.

Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago.

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