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.
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.