The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Michael Chabon

Published by HarperCollins, 2007, 432 pages.

“Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208…”

The year is 1998. When, after World War II, plans to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine did not work out, they were leased some land in Alaska for 60 years. After that the land would revert to the State of Alaska.

As the book begins, the 60 years are almost over, and the Reversion is imminent. The “Frozen Chosen” will have to decide where their future lies.

Meyer Landsman is a detective with the District Police, the Jewish police force in Alaska. As is often the case with most fictional detectives, his personal life is a mess. He is divorced, drinks too much and is living in the Hotel Zamenhof, a dive. Landsman is still mourning the death of his younger sister Naomi, who was killed when her small plane crashed into a mountain. To make matters worse, his new boss is his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish, with whom he is still in love.

One day Landsman is summoned by the hotel clerk, who has found one of the guests dead, shot through the head. The dead man is a junkie chess player who calls himself Emanuel Lasker. It seems to be a suicide, but Landsman is not convinced. Although Bina tells him to drop the case—after all, in a few months, the District Police won’t exist anymore—Landsman will not let go.

He and his partner Berko Shemets find out that the dead man is really Mendel Shpringer—the only son of a well-respected rabbi who has the power to heal and was believed to be a potential messiah. It was expected that Mendel would take over from his father, but the pressure of the expectations placed on him proved too much. He walked away from everything and eventually ended up in the Zamenhof.

Rabbi Shpringer does not want to know about his son. As far as he is concerned, Mendel died when he abandoned his calling.

But something does not add up. As Landsman gets closer to the truth, he realizes that it goes beyond the death of one man. Landsman’s investigation is rattling the cages of some very powerful people, who will go to any lengths to avoid the truth coming out. Were these people also responsible for Naomi’s death?

I reread this book and enjoyed it as much the second time. This is an entertaining, hard-boiled whodunit. Michael Chabon is a skilled writer and keeps up the tension. I was pulled into the world he creates: it is so vividly portrayed that felt I could walk right into it.

The characters are well-drawn, and I particularly liked Bina, who is a force to be reckoned with. And Chabon’s sense of humour had me chuckling.  

Chabon uses a lot of Yiddish words in the book, which takes some getting used to, although I managed to guess what most of them meant. The language does add to the atmosphere: the Jews are supposed to be speaking Yiddish throughout, and when they switch to English, it is referred to as “speaking American”.

Chabon creates an interesting what-if world: what would have happened if the events after World War II had taken a different turn?

I first read this book in the winter of 2008 on a train ride from Geneva to eastern Switzerland. The memory of that ride has stayed with me: travelling through some stunning scenery with an absorbing read that transported me to another similarly snow-bound world.

Buy from UK / USA

2 thoughts on “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Michael Chabon

  1. Sophie

    Hi Suroor
    I read Chambon’s Amazing adventures of kavalier and Clay a decade ago and really enjoyed his narrative skills, plot and characters. This novel sounds extremely good too. I’ll check it out!

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