Michael Epstein: The eclectic and talented Howard Norman

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The date is March 19, 1975. The place is an auction house in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jacob Rioglet has just settled into his seat preparing to bid on a 19th century photograph on behalf of his wealthy, collector employer. Suddenly his mother, Nora Ives Rigolet, a resident of the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, runs to the front of the auction house and throws a bottle of ink at a valuable Robert Capa photograph.

Thus begins Howard Norman's new novel, "My Darling Detective" (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2017), and the reader is immediately thrust into a haunting tale of family, infidelity, murder, World War II and anti-Semitism. The story becomes more tangled when Nora is questioned by Detective Martha Crauchet who happens to be Jacob's fiance, and the case of vandalism leads to even more complexity when it opens questions about Jacob's paternity and the murderer in two Halifax cold cases from the 1940s.

Norman, the author of two National Book award nominated murder mysteries, adds an innovative twist to this one by introducing a noir detective style through a radio show which also includes time travel. The main characters, Jacob and Martha, listen to their favorite radio show, 'Detective Levy Detects', every night, providing the vehicle for Norman to demonstrate his skill with the noir style while establishing a set of mysteries, murders, characters, and settings in Toronto of the 1940s to parallel the actual action in Halifax in the 1970s. Norman uses this time travel motif — a nod to another famous writer, H.G. Wells — in the radio show as well as in the real mystery as the Halifax detectives try to unravel a 30-year-old web of unsolved murders. The story winds back and forth from the present in 1975 with Nora's crime, Martha's interrogation, and Jacob's job to the 1945 of the vandalized Capa photograph when it is discovered that it shows Jacob's `father,' Bernard, just two days before he is killed by a sniper in Leipzig. The use of quotation marks around `father' is intentional as the identity of Jacob's father is the key to Nora's ink toss as well as to the solution to the cold case of the murders of Max Berall and Estelle Yoblon, two leading members of the Halifax Jewish community, in 1945.

Norman ties all of these loose ends up in a neat, entertaining package that keeps the reader turning pages. The noir radio show displays his take on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammet's Sam Spade adding a delightful touch to the book. As in his previous books, Norman enjoys teasing the reader with quirky hidden details. Why did he choose Rigolet, not a classic Jewish surname, for Jacob? A quick search of Google reveals `Rigolet' to be the southernmost Inuit village in Canada, founded in 1735 and currently populated by some 300 souls. Is Norman teasing us with this hint that the Inuits, another of his deep interests, are one of the Biblical Jacob's descendants, the lost tribes of Israel?

My Darling Detective, is one more example of this Vermont writer's versatile skills. The author of more than 20 books ranging from folktales of the Cree and Inuit people to juvenile fiction, from National Book Award nominated novels to National Geographic articles, from a superb collection of essays to a fine collection of short stories, Norman once again translates his vivid imagination into an entertaining and stylish read.

Howard Norman is eclectic, talented, quirky, and always exploring how issues from his past intersect and interact with the present. In the introduction to his superb essay collection, "I Hate to Leave This Place" (2013), he describes himself as a "confused soul" trying to gain some clarity, keep some emotional balance, and find some joy. He goes on to write that "one thing that connects these disparate experiences (and as a reviewer, I would add, his disparate works of fiction and non-fiction) is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes places to think things through." My Darling Detective uses a murder mystery set in the 1970's in Halifax, the radio-based noir detective style of the 1930s, the backdrop of World War II and the complicated relationships of family, parents, and spouses to further explore those issues for Norman. Read this book and read his others as well.

— Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vt., and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com


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