Uncommon Mystery - The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Oct 8, 2010

Murray, KY – Michael Cohen peeks through the pages of an uncommon mystery about a detective story set in an alternative history version of the present day. It's Michael Chabon's award-winning novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union."

Surely it is an uncommon mystery novel that wins four top awards for science fiction. But what interested the award committees was not a future of space ships and time travel, but rather what Michael Chabon does with the past.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is an alternate history novel, the sort that asks the question "what would it be like if some important event in the past had turned out differently?" Chabon rewrites the 1940s. In his version the Germans defeated the Russians and the war dragged on to 1946, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin. Moreover the brand-new Jewish State of Israel was defeated and obliterated in the 1948 Arab Israeli War. But before the U. S. entered the Second World War, a proposal had been aired in Congress to give Jewish refugees an autonomous refuge in Alaska, with Sitka as its capital (this part of the story is, amazingly, true). In Chabon's book this refuge is a reality, but in 1948 a sixty-year time period was set for its reversion to the U. S. The book is set in 2007, the Reversion is about to happen, and only a few Jews will be given green cards to remain in Alaska, so another Diaspora looms.

In this setting police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a man who was killed execution-style in Landsman's own residence hotel. The man is known at first only as Emanuel Lasker because he uses the names of famous chess masters as aliases. Most of those who knew him believed him to be the Tzaddik-ha-Dor, the one man born in each generation capable of being the Messiah if he is recognized as such by his people.

Detective Landsman, who has a drinking problem, eats in the modern equivalent of automats, and is still painfully in love with his ex-wife, will be recognizable as the legitimate heir of fictional hard-boiled detectives from Sam Spade to Philip Marlowe. Landsman's ex-wife has just been installed as his commanding officer, he's only a couple of months from being without a job or a country, and to top it off, the powers-that-be don't want him to investigate the death of Lasker. No reader of hard-boiled mysteries will be surprised that he investigates anyway. He feels guilty about not having befriended the murdered man, and he doesn't think he should allow people to come into his hotel and murder his fellow residents. He finds that Lasker's death is somehow connected to that of Landsman's own sister, who was a bush pilot whose plane crashed a year earlier.

Also related to the crime is the U. S. evangelical president's wish to see the Jews installed in Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon rebuilt, so that the prophecies of end times can be fulfilled. It's as if Chabon managed to get Tim LaHaye and Philip Roth in the same book, but with a more interesting style than either.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His book Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and is available on Amazon.com.