An intriguing trio of Jewish detectives

When reading lots of books randomly in quick succession, I often find that they form themselves into little groups in my mind. This was recently the case with Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Mala Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die and Peter May’s The Blackhouse, which had lots of interesting connections (see previous post). Now another three novels have gravitated towards one another, and this time the common denominator is their innovative treatment of the Jewish detective.

It all started on a long train journey from Manchester, which thanks to double engine failure took twice as long as scheduled. While the delay was annoying, it supplied me with some extra reading hours, which I used to start the first of the Rabbi Small novels by Harry Kemelman. By the time I got home, I’d pretty much finished it, and was eyeing up another novel high on my TBR list, Harri Nykänen’s Nights of Awe. Then it was straight to my bookshelf to pull down an old favourite, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

There are eleven novels in the Rabbi Small series, the first of which, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, was written in 1964. The rabbi has not long arrived in the seashore town of Barnard’s Crossing when he’s pulled into the case of a young girl murdered near the synagogue. As much as anything, the novel is a study of small-town America, exploring the tensions between the quiet Talmudic scholar and his congregation, whose main goal is to be financially and socially successful. Some of its members don’t think much of Small, but it turns out that his training as a rabbi is extremely valuable to their Jewish community, especially when it comes to proving that the murder wasn’t committed by one of them.

As Kemelman has Small explain: ‘In the old days, the rabbi was hired not by the synagogue but by the town. And he was hired not to lead prayers or to supervise the synagogue, but to sit in judgement on the cases that were brought to him […]. He would hear the case, ask questions, examine witnesses if necessary, and then on the basis of the Talmud, he would give his verdict’. This background places Small in the perfect position to help with the murder case – and is a wonderfully original premise for a detective.

Pulitzer prize-winning Michael Chabon is one of the world’s finest writers in my view: an incredibly inventive and original author whose use of language makes me swoon. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, published in 2007, is his homage to the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring world-weary P.I. Meyer Landesman. But what’s most extraordinary about this novel is its audacious starting point: it’s set in an alternate present in which 3 million Jews escaped the Holocaust through a resettlement programme to Alaska (an actual idea suggested in 1940 by US politician Harold Ickes). They are the ‘Frozen Chosen’, but now face a problem because their lease on the Federal District of Sitka is up. The Independent on Sunday called it ‘a dazzling, individual, hyperconfident novel. Only a shmendrik would pass it up’. I concur.

I’ll be reviewing this extraordinary crime novel in more detail in another post, but if you’re interested in learning more, Patricia Cohen’s New York Times article on the author’s visit to the real Sitka makes for a fascinating read.

 Nights of Awe

Last but not least is Harri Nykänen’s Nights of Awe, a Finnish police procedural just out with Bitter Lemon Press. Set during the ‘Days of Awe’ that lead up to Yom Kippur, it features Ariel Kafka, inspector in the Violent Crime Unit of the Helsinki police and one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland. I haven’t read this novel as yet, but purchased the book on the strength its unusual detective and the reviews I’ve seen for it (see for example Bernadette’s at Reactions to Reading and Norman’s at Crime Scraps Review).

What links these novels for me is their highly original approach to the figure of the Jewish detective (a Finn / a rabbi / someone who only exists because the author has rewritten history) and the innovative contexts in which they are situated (small-town America, Alaska and Finland). This kind of inventiveness, when teamed with excellent writing, is an unbeatable combination for me.

I’m very much looking forward to reading Nights of Awe now and will report back in due course!