D.A. Mishani, The Missing File, translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen (London, HarperCollins 2013 ) 4 stars
Opening line: Across the desk from him sat a mother.
The reviews I’ve read so far of this novel, while pleased to see a contemporary Israeli crime novel in translation, have given it rather a cool reception. Although I’d be the first to admit that The Missing File is not perfect, I wonder if it deserves some extra praise for the profound comment it makes on the processes of detection and interpretation, and the implications of those processes for securing (or not securing) proper justice.
The setting for the novel is the small city of Holon, where the author grew up, which was established in the 1930s on sand dunes a few kilometers south of Tel Aviv and has a very suburban feel. Here we’re introduced to Inspector Avraham Avraham of the Israeli police, as he listens somewhat wearily to a mother reporting the disappearance of her sixteen-year-old son at the end of a long shift. That disappearance predictably turns into a major missing persons case, with potentially serious implications for Avraham’s career.
Pretty much the whole of the novel – aside from a bizarre and largely redundant interlude in Belgium – is devoted to solving the riddle of schoolboy Ofer Sharabi’s whereabouts. As a result the narrative has a slow-moving feel that takes a little getting used to in an era of fast-paced, eventful plotlines. It was actually only when I reached the end of the novel that I really began to understand what it was all about, and to appreciate its cleverness.
In a sense, the case itself is marginal: what’s really being explored is what it means to be a good or bad detective – one who really listens to what he’s being told and can accurately sift the information he is given, versus one who allows his judgement to be clouded by false assumptions or to be influenced by outside pressures. Avraham has the potential to be an extremely good detective, but is shown at various points to be either under- or over-confident, leading him into investigative cul-de-sacs from which he has to be rescued (please note) by two women – his police boss Ilana, and Marianka, a young woman he meets on his trip to Belgium. He’s therefore a long way from the seasoned, engagingly brilliant detectives that we’re accustomed to in our crime narratives, and I wonder if this is another reason why the novel hasn’t won over more readers.
The novel also reminded me a little of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge, in the sense that it can be viewed as an existential detective novel – consciously reflecting on the genre and its conventions. We are told that Avraham’s hobby is reading detective novels and watching past episodes of Law and Order in order to ‘prove the detectives wrong’. ‘With every crime novel I read [he says], I conduct my own investigation and prove that the detective in the book is mistaken, or else deliberately misleads the readers, and that the true solution is not the one he presents’. And at the end of the novel, we as readers are invited to reflect deeply on that pronouncement. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a crime novel that needs to be read twice over: once to be swept along with Avraham as the case unfolds with all its minute twists and turns, and then again knowing the probable truth, in order to see the clues that were pointing us in the right direction all along (my favourite two are contained in one of Avraham’s pronouncements on detective fiction and in the title of a book). We readers, it’s implied, also need to open our eyes and ears a bit more…
Overall, this felt very much like a first novel setting things up for a series. I’m keen to meet Avraham again, hopefully in a stronger investigative position following his experiences on this case, and to hear more about life in Holon (the novel has a nice, albeit understated sense of place and Jewish-Israeli culture). I’m also intrigued by the brief mention of Uri from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), whom Avraham ‘detests’, and who leads him to reflect that ‘Israel had another police force about which he knew very little – a special police force, only for Arab-related matters, without stations, without published telephone numbers’. This reference made me wonder if a later novel in the series might dare to explore Israel’s relationship with Palestine. I imagine that this would probably be a first for Israeli crime fiction (does anyone know?) and would be very interested to see how its complexities are depicted.
The Missing File is one of six novels shortlisted for the 2013 International Dagger.
Mishani has written a series of very interesting blog posts for the Jewish Book Council on Hebrew crime fiction and how his own detective departs from the conventions of the Israeli literary hero.
Part 1: The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective
Part 2: The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective: The Investigation Begins
Part 3: Detective Fiction and the Zionist Cultural Revolution
Part 4: Can a Policeman be an Israeli Hero?
Part 5: Introducing Inspector Avraham Avraham
If you’re interested in finding out more about Israeli crime fiction, there are a couple of illuminating guest posts on the subject by Uri Kenan at Detectives Beyond Borders.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Missing File an unusual and intriguing 4 stars.
Very nice review, even if the book was not exactly for my taste.
Thanks, Jose Ignacio. I can understand why some readers have not been particularly taken with this novel. It does have some flaws, and I think the overall approach to the crime narrative is different to the one readers might usually expect. That said, I think it’s trying to do something quite ambitious and genre-bending (even if it hasn’t come off perfectly).
One of the reasons that I so enjoy crime fiction is that at its best it offers a critical commentary on the society out of which it has grown. This can make fiction from abroad an excellent means of coming to understand another culture and their mores. Israeli crime fiction would definitely be a new area for me and, as you say, it would be fascinating if Mishani were to feel able to explore the Israeli-Arab dynamic. I shall definitely be looking for a copy of this.
Thanks for your comment, Alex – I absolutely agree that crime fiction at its best often provides an illuminating social commentary. The interesting thing about this one, though, is that it doesn’t really fit into that model. The reference to the Shin Bet, for example, is quite fleeting – there’s much more of a micro-focus on the case, on everyday suburban life and on the process of detection as opposed to the larger political picture. If the series were to continue in this vein it could be open to the criticism of avoiding key issues (Israel-Palestine as the elephant in the room), so it will be interesting to see where it goes.
Excellent review Mrs P, I have read previous reviews of this novel and thought no, but now you make me think yes…I would really be interested to read Israeli crime fiction, never read any Israeli fiction before.
Thanks, Blighty. Yes, the fact that the novel was Israeli was one of the main reasons that I was drawn to it in spite of some rather luke-warm reviews. It’s not perfect, but is very much worth a read, as I think it is genuinely trying to do something different with the genre and to make us think a little about the ways in which we arrive at ‘the truth’ of complex events.
P.S. Am currently reading Roseanna, can’t wait to read your reviews on Sjowall and Wahloo.
Ooh, do let me know what you think of Roseanna!
For info, that novel kickstarted a huge discussion on the blog about women and violence in crime (possibly best read after finishing the novel): https://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/depictions-of-violence-and-women-in-crime-fiction-with-list-of-strong-women-in-crime/
I keep meaning to review S&W, but suspect that I’m little daunted by the task, because the series is so loved, and you really need to have the whole lot fresh in your mind before reviewing the individual texts. Discovering and devouring that series one summer remains one of my fondest reading memories…
Dear Mrs P , thanks for the link to the violence in crime discussion, which I read with great interest, it’s a cracking discussion. I must admit, I did find the police examination of Roseanna’s private life surprising , verging on the prurient as it seemed unnecessary to the investigation, but then , once I got further on in the book, it appeared that it was her attitude to sex which enraged the killer so it was sort of relevant to working out what kind of killer they were seeking??? Anyway, enjoyed the book a lot, liked the fact the detective was always feeling ill! Now reading Happy Birthday Turk, another Mrs P recommendation and LOVING it, reminds me a bit in its style and wit of the Robert B Parker Spenser novels – have you ever read them or do you avoid American crime novels??
I think your reading of Roseanna is spot on, Blighty. I’m not sure if S & W got the balance perfectly right, but then again, this was one of the very first books to give the female victim proper attention as a person (as opposed to her corpse simply providing the impetus for the investigation), so I am prepared to be a little lenient. They were definitely moving in the right direction for a novel written in 1965.
I’m so glad to hear that you’re enjoying Happy Birthday, Turk! I’m very fond of that one as you know. I haven’t read any Robert B. Parker Spencer (great name), but will certainly take a look. I enjoy my American crime fiction (have reviewed a few on the blog – Howey, Flynn, Thompson, Franklin, Hawken), but do tend to get sucked in more by translated crime. Always room for a new author though!
I read this book based on a short paper review of it, which made it sound quite promising, before I saw any reviews from the blogging community. At first I was sceptical as to the merits of the book although as I got beyond the Belgian interlude, which to me seemed superfluous except for the introduction of Marianka which could have been easily achieved in another, more believable, way, the plot seemed to strengthen. At the end I thought it had been a good, if not riveting read, which I was pleased I had persevered with.
Your review, Mrs P., is very balanced and I think your idea of a second read to see the nuances there in the earlier part of the book is a good idea which I will do sometime, not just yet though as my “to read” pile is vast as it is. Finally I’m not convinced that the book is really of the calibre that would warrant its place on the CRA’s International Dagger short list.
Thanks, Philip. Ah yes, the Belgian interlude. What was all of that about? I agree that this section was superfluous to requirements – M could quite easily have been introduced in another way as you say. A couple of reviewers have also spotted that the case being investigated in Belgium at the time of Avraham’s visit bears an extremely close resemblance to the real Joanna Yates case (Bristol, UK).
The question of whether the book should have made the International Dagger shortlist is an interesting one. If I were a judge, I would be looking for 5 star novels only for the shortlist (although I guess there may not be enough in any given year). With this one, I wavered between 3.5 and 4 stars, opting for the latter in acknowledgement of the novel’s attempts to do something interesting (albeit imperfectly) with the genre, but also to make a little bit of a statement in relation to other less positive reviews. But it wouldn’t have made 5 stars from me, which denotes all-round excellence.
There’s been some enlightening discussion about another novel on the shortlist – The Collini Case – because the judges seem to be saying that they chose it partly because of its engagement with questions of historical memory and justice, and the public impact that it had, as opposed to the novel’s individual merits. Bernadette over at Reactions to Reading has been musing on this – wondering whether those sorts of ‘outside’ considerations should form part of the judging process, rather than the quality of the text itself (see http://reactionstoreading.com/2013/06/22/on-worthiness-and-the-cult-of-personality/). I wonder whether part of the attraction for the judges in the case of The Missing File was that the novel is Israeli, and thus has some rarity value / provides an opportunity for a more nationally diverse shortlist. It would be fascinating to know.
Very interesting discussion as always, Mrs. P. This is on reserve for me at the library, but I am already concerned that it doesn’t deal with, as you put it, “the elephant in the room,” the issues of the Palestinians — and how they are treated in the criminal justice system. I will, however, try to read it and then form opinions.
I keep meaning to read a few books by Batya Gur, an Israeli, who, in her later crime fiction, did deal with Palestinian issues.
As for The Collini Case, which was the subject ot a fascinating discussion right here, I have purchased it and am awaiting its delivery. Then I’ll dive in. Everywhere I see a discussion about this book, it’s fraught with opinions. So it’s a must-read.
I will read it and circulate it.
I do think books can be nominated for prizes if they bring up critical social and political issues or set off discussions in the author’s country, which I believe Collini did in Germany. However, I’ll wait until I finish the book to finalize my opinions.
Morning, Kathy! Thanks very much for pointing me in the direction of Batya Gur – I’ll definitely be seeking those out.
It looks to me like Mishani is trying to do something rather different from what we might expect (e.g. focus on Israel-Palestine). I’ve just found this piece that he wrote for the Jewish Book Council which gives some context on the figure of Avraham and how he fits into (or doesn’t fit into) the larger conventions of Israeli literature/the Israeli hero. The piece is one of a series that the author wrote – I’ll be putting the links in at the end of the post for all to see:
The discussion on The Collini Case has been very interesting, and I can see both sides of the argument. Ideally, of course, all novels on a shortlist should be of top quality, but I can understand that a book’s social impact might also be something that judges wish to take into account. There aren’t many crime novels that get cited by government ministers when setting up commissions!
Look forward very much to hearing what you make of both of these novels, Kathy 🙂
I’m trying to think if I’ve read any existential detective novels: there must be some, but I’d have to dig through some old journals where I kept my reading lists. Thanks for the interesting review.
There a quite a few crime novels that make some kind of reference to crime fiction, but often this seems to be the author’s little in-joke (e.g. a passing mention of Agatha Christie, or having a detective say to someone, ‘that only happens in crime novels, you know’). But existential detective novels that really make reflection on the genre their core are much more rare. If you find any more, I’d love to know.
He does it satirically but I think I would put (Colin) Bateman (I feel ridiculous referring to him by his preferred single name) in this category with his mystery man series. Is existential satire a thing?
Thanks, Bernadette – a good example. Is existential satire a thing? Let’s say yes and see where it leads!
As always, an excellent review Mrs P – you have picked up on many thought-provoking points. I happened to like the novel more than most though I think we can all agree that the Belgian interlude was a bit pointless (I assume its primary role was to introduce the potential love interest). As has been the case with much of my reading recently I found myself less interested in the detective character than in the storytelling mechanism overall which I liked.
On the issue of the elephant in the room I was actually quite pleased not to see this particular issue raised though I can imagine it will happen if the series continues. My rationale behind this thinking is that Israel is more than a participant in a conflict – regardless of how long-running and bitter that conflict has been – and I think it is important for ‘us’ – i.e. the rest of the world – to see the people and communities in the Middle East (on either side of the fence – or the wall if we’re being specific) as being remarkably similar to our own communities – with the same daily trials and tribulations and boringly domestic murders – rather than only as people engaged in a never ending conflict. Of course I don’t want to suggest we can, or should, sweep the important political issues under the carpet but I do like like the idea of such cultures being ‘normalised’ in the collective conciousness. I am reminded of something Deon Meyer said in an interview about South African crime fiction needing to move beyond apartheid and the aftermath of its demise before it could be considered grown up (I am paraphrasing horribly but hopefully you get the point).
I attempted to read a Batya Gur novel some years ago – found it utterly inaccessible but can’t remember why now.. I’ve not tried any other Israeli crime fiction, though have enjoyed Matt Rees’ novels featuring a Palestinian amateur detective. Rees is English but worked as a journalist in the Middle East for many years and his knowledge does shine through – he definitely tackles the complexities of the political situation head-on within the conventions of crime fiction.
Thanks, Bernadette. I think you’ve seen very much what Mishani intends in the novel – a normalised depiction of everyday life in Israel (and one that is realistic from his point of view). He explains in his last JBC post that:
>> [m]y protagonist, Inspector Avraham Avraham, is a peripheral character, from Mizrahi [rather than Ashkanazi] origins, like police officers in Israel usually are, and certainly like they are in Israeli culture. He works in Holon, my home town, which is an urban, lower-middle-class, suburb of Tel Aviv. He didn’t grow up in a kibbutz, he doesn’t work for the Mossad, and the cases he’s investigating don’t have any national importance. He doesn’t chase old hiding Nazi criminals and not even Muslim terrorists. In The Missing File, he’s just looking for a sixteen-year-old boy, as unimportant as him, who went missing <<.
So Avraham is positioned very much as an average, ordinary policeman, and it's implied that he would not in any case be involved in policing the Israeli-Palestinian situation (that's the role of the Shin Bet and the army). Instead, we see him engaged in bread-and-butter investigations that have no larger political import.
I think this is OK up to a certain point. As you say it's good to get a sense of ordinary life and the commonalities between the community he depicts and our own, but if there is a sole focus on a 'normalised everyday' then that arguably paints a somewhat illusory picture (given the ongoing reality of the conflict). So my feeling is that a balance of some sort is needed (as I think you suggest with your reference to showing everyday life on 'either side of the fence / wall'). It will be so very interesting to see how Mishani handles this highly complex issue as the series progresses (and who would want to be in his shoes – such a difficult authorial task!).
I hadn't heard of Matt Rees' novels before. It sounds like they form a fascinating counterpoint to Mishani's work – I'll definitely have a look at these soon. Thanks!
Thanks for reminding me to go and check those links to the Mishani articles – I got half way through them and then wandered away as one does so I missed the final 2 posts.
It will be interesting to see how he does handle the balancing act if the series progresses – and you’re right there does need to be some balance as the conflict is integrally a part of Israel’s soul. I suppose I was imagining my Israeli friends’ reaction to the book – one friend in particular gets so frustrated that all the “important” literature (and film etc) has to be about what he calls IT and that it is virtually impossible for art which looks at any other subject to get taken seriously. I used to feel the same way about Australian literature – until relatively recently if an alien had learned about Australia from its prize winning literature they would have formed the picture that we are a country of rural-dwelling, white, middle-aged men who live in near-isolation but for the presence of a few good mates and one very quiet woman and that the only significant event in our entire history was a battle we participated in (and lost) in 1915 over the other side of the world. The situation has improved a little of late but the overwhelming canon of AusLit is still pretty unrealistically slanted and totally irrelevant to the actual lives most of us have been living for the past few decades.
Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Bernadette. Yes, I can understand and relate to the frustrations of the ‘home’ readership perfectly (Germans have been rather annoyed at being predominantly depicted as Nazis or blond baddies in mainstream Hollywood fare over the years). And if there’s a major disconnect between what’s being depicted and reality then you end up with a cartoonish notion of a nation and the lives of its citizens. But I suppose one difference is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still live as opposed to a past event – that’s what makes me think it would need inclusion in some shape or form in a contemporary series. Am now REALLY intrigued to see where this series goes.
And then there’s the Palestinians’ point of view, too, which is often omitted from these books altogether. I think from reading reviews of Batya Gur’s life and works, that she did deal with these issues. I will read a Matt Rees’ book, too, to see how he handles these issues.
That’s the big question, Kathy, I agree. This is only the first of a planned series by Mishani, so we’ll see where he goes from here. I was intrigued by the little conversation between Avraham and Uri from the Shin Bet. I wonder if Uri might return and that angle be developed further in subsequent books.
These photos would send me racing out of here to the nearest animal shelter to rescue all the tabby kittens they have! Except I have allergies. Drag.
Hope others do the same.
I do have a tendency to sneeze a bit, but try to ignore it!
Cats are worth the sneezes. I get breathing problems from cats if they’re shedding. But I content myself with friends’ felines.
I just finished this book, and liked it as a good debut mystery. It took me quite awhile to get into it but once I did I kept reading. I did guess the official version early on but wondered that the alternative solution as presented in the last few pages was the real one. It seemed more plausible, and I notice the author ended the book with “To be continued.” So the case goes on.
I read it and I’ll read the next one and then look for books by Batya Gur.
I thought “the elephant in the room” was alluded to a few times, and the one time a Palestinian was mentioned, it was very negative.
I don’t know how the author can keep writing about the insular community in Holon without the wider issues coming into play, but we’ll see what happens.
Now to read The Collini Case or something calmer.
Thanks, Kathy – let’s keep an eye on this series together!
Mishani has added new dimensions to the crime novel. The Missing File is as much a morality tale for our confused moral times as it is a murder mystery. He has kaleidoscoped not one, but three crimes in this book, each more horrifying than its predecessor, each perfectly tailored to our growing contemporary ambiguity toward evil… [SPOILER REMOVED BY MRS P]. Whatever the future holds for Avraham Avraham under Mishani’s pen, one would hope it will be directed toward building on the psychological insight he has gained in this remarkable first outing.
Many thanks for your comment, William. Firstly, apologies, as I have had to remove a little bit of your comment due to the blog’s no-spoilers rule. Secondly, I absolutely agree with you that this is a remarkable first outing. The novel has really stayed in my mind since reading it, and it’s one that I will definitely return to again. I wouldn’t be surprised if a second reading strengthened my appreciation of it.
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