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!

21 thoughts on “An intriguing trio of Jewish detectives

  1. Fascinating Mrs P – As a kid I remember watching the brief TV series LANIGAN’S RABBI based on Kemelman’s series and read several of the books then, sometime in the early 80s but I haven;t picked them up since. Kemelman also wrote ‘The Nine Mile Walk, which is an excellent short story, well worth looking out for (it’s been made available online, though I have no idea if this is legal: I love Chabon’s work but have not read this one of his yet and look forward to reading your full post on it. Cheers.

    • Many thanks, Cavershamragu. I didn’t realise there had been a TV series: would be very interesting to see how the adaptation measures up against the books. I haven’t read ‘The Nine Mile Walk’ but have seen lots of praise for it – so must look that one up. Heartily recommend Chabon – and envy you having all his work ahead of you…!

      • Hi Mrs P – unfortunately it seems as though LANIGAN’S RABBI isn’t available on DVD. The shortlived TV series was OK but wasn’t as good as the pilot in which the lead role was played by Stuart Margolin, better known for playing ‘Angel’ in THE ROCKFORD FILES, who was replaced for the eventual series. I like Chabon a lot, especially WONDER BOYS and KAVALIER & CLAY.

      • Thank you for looking into the DVD, Cavershamragu – very kind. I’ve half read Kavalier and Clay and love it thus far.

  2. I read the Rabbi Small novels years ago – the Stockport library system had tons of copies when I was a teenager. I would be interested to reread one sometimes to see how I viewed them now.

    • Hooray for Stockport libraries! I’ve read two in the series now, and when I started the second one, had a slight sinking feeling, as it was clear that Kemelman has a ‘Rabbi Small formula’, which involves a murder, small-town-slice-of-life observations, and the Rabbi surviving a possible sacking by disgruntled members of his own flock (he’s on a one-year renewable contract). But in spite of this, I was quickly won over by the quality of Kemelman’s storytelling: you can’t help warming to the very human characters depicted and the insightfulness of the writing. So: all quite gentle, and of their time, but very beguiling. The insights they give into Judaism are also very interesting – though in the view of some, the religious element is slightly idealised. I imagine that I’ll probably feel like reading another one in the series in a few months.

  3. We share an appreciation of Michael Chabon. ‘The Yiddish Policeman’s Union’ is one of my favourite books of recent years, and (non-crime) ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ is a great pastiche adventure story – at one point entitled ‘Jews with Swords’. I wasn’t as keen on ‘The Final Solution’, his Sherlock Holmes novella.

  4. Oh I’m going to see if i can find any of those Harry Kemelman books Mrs P – sounds intriguing. I have a bit of a thing about seeing different religions portrayed in fiction so am always keen for new books to explore on that theme.

    I did try to read the Chabon book but I must admit I didn’t get very far – I’m sure he is a fine writer (in fact I know he is as I did read Kavalier and Clay and enjoyed it) but I couldn’t get into that particular book at all. Perhaps it was the alternate reality scenario which is something I generally don’t enjoy.

    Hope you enjoy Nights of Awe.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. I found the Kemelman books on Kindle UK – the whole series has been digitised from what I can see. They were extremely popular in their day, especially in the States. If you have problems, perhaps I can try to find a hard copy of number 1 and wing it out to you!

      The Chabon certainly has an original starting point, and I can understand that this would not be everyone’s cup of tea. What I liked in particular was C’s homage to the hard-boiled genre (especially the PI figure and the language), and at the same time, his innovative use of that form. He’s insatiably curious as a writer and is always trying out new things, which I really like.

      Will let you know how I get on with Nights of Awe!

  5. These books sound intriguing. I must try some of Harry Kemelman’s books, but I don’t know if my library has them; it’s culling all books more than a few years old. I have Nights of Awe on library reserve. And I have heard mixed reviews on The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m not sure about alternate universes. And I’ll just get aggravated about this concept because the U.S. government had a quota and let in only a few Jewish people before and during WWII. The government here should have let in all those fleeing Nazism whenever needed. No legitimate reason not to have done it. And not in Alaska, but in cities where they could have gotten jobs, housing and health care.
    I will read Kavalier and Clay, which I’ve only heard good things about.

    • Thanks, Kathy. There are certainly parts of The Yiddish Policemans’ Union that are very poignant given the historical record, but there’s also a biting humour that is used to great critical effect, and makes it an interesting read. Kavalier and Clay is also very much engaged with the history of the Second World War (one of the main characters is shown fleeing Nazi persecution to the States). I got about a third of the way through before life interfered, and have it back on my list of summer reading for this year.

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