What if we made a different choice? What if we attended another college, turned left instead of right, called him back, told the truth, skipped the third margarita, said what we really thought, took the job, or called the doctor?
The what if exercise is rarely productive when applied to our personal lives, but richly rewarding when adopted by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon. What if the fledgling republic of Israel was defeated in 1948, and the refugee Jews were settled in a Federal District in Sitka, Alaska? This is the minutely realized setting for the suspense novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
As the novel opens, Homicide Detective Myer Landsman faces two problems. “A yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker” is found murdered in the Hotel Zamenhof, which also happens to be the temporary home of Detective Landsman. In addition, after sixty years, Sitka is to revert back to the state of Alaska. The 3.2 million Jews settled there must make other living arrangements.
Of the two developments, Landsman focuses on Lasker’s murder rather than the Reversion. Since the recent breakup of his marriage and the death of his sister, Landsman doesn’t think much further ahead than the next drink.
To reader of mysteries, Landsman is a familiar figure. He is a seen- it- all cop who has insomnia, drinks too much, and makes wisecracks that barely mask his grief. He also has a long suffering partner, Berko Shemets, half- Tlingit, half- Jew who has been known to carry a tomahawk just to disconcert the citizenry.
The death of a heroin addict in a sleazy hotel isn’t an unusual crime, except for the execution style of the murder, and the chessboard set up next to the body along with a copy of Three Hundred Chess Games.
Landsman, who comes from a family of fanatical chess players, pursues the case with more vigor than it seems to warrant. In fact, Emanuel Lasker turns out to be Mendel Shpilman, estranged son of a powerful rabbi with connections to organized crime. While exploring Shpilman’s tortuous family history, Landsman confronts his own relatives, notably his wily Uncle Hertz . When his bosses want to close the case, Landsman is too emotionally involved to quit.
The who- done-it includes the typical features of the genre. Landsman is shot at, lied to, and kidnapped. Informants, nosey newspaper reporters, wealthy drug lords, run- of- the- mill thugs, and obtuse bureaucrats (from the U.S. Interior Department ) populate the novel. While the mystery is intriguing, it is the depiction of the fictional community that is so compelling. The politics, history, cuisine, and culture are rendered vividly. Everyone speaks Yiddish but curses in American. The best food in Sitka is a shtekeleh, a Filipino- style Chinese donut followed closely by a slice of apple crumble from the pie shop near the Yakovy airfield. Even the slang has the ring of authenticity. Sitka Jews call their cousins from the lower forty-eight, mexicans, and the mexicans in turn call the Sitka Jews icebergers, or “the frozen Chosen.” Sitka’s residents proudly recall the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair, but rarely mention The Synagogue Riots in which a dozen Native Alaskans were killed.
The tone of the novel is a bit choppy, veering into the surreal, but the story is a rewarding puzzler and the characters genuine.
The real Sitka, a popular stop on Alaskan cruises, has more kitschy gift shops than black hats. Fortunately, a gritty and vibrant alternative lives on in the pages of this remarkable novel.
NOTE: This is an ECW Classic Review, originally published in an earlier post or in NFocus Magazine. On occasion, I’ll republish a timeless review as a good read is never out dated!