In the slightly-alternate universe of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the Zionist movement came to an abrupt end in 1948, its settlers were ousted from Palestine, and a significant fraction of the world’s Jewish population landed in and around Sitka, Alaska, carving out an uneasy community where Orthodox Jews, Russians, Americans, and native Tlingits rubbed shoulders. In the years thereafter, dreams of statehood for the Sitka District emerged, but they were slowly strangled, and now the arrangement with the United States is nearing its expiration date. In a few months, the Jews of Sitka face deportation and an uncertain future. Where, exactly, is anybody’s guess.
Sitka Central District Police Detective Meyer Landsman is spending a typical evening in his fleabag hotel room, drinking himself into oblivion, when the manager knocks at his door. In a room downstairs, a junkie lies dead, a bullet in his brain and a chessboard on the table beside him. His I.D. bears the name “Emanuel Lasker”—a famous chessmaster of years past, but certainly not the emaciated, blondish kid sprawled on the bed. There’s no sign of forced entry, struggle, or theft, and the victim was dispatched with a single shot to the back of his head. Landsman’s pickled synapses sputter, then make a connection—this was an execution, not a suicide.
Landsman’s investigation will take him deep into a labyrinthine world of gangster rabbis, Orthodox zealots, oily politicians, and his own personal ghosts. Everything connects to the dead junkie, and it’s beginning to look like the future of Sitka’s Jews, for better or worse, might hinge on who he really was—and why he had to die.
“It’s a strange time,” Landsman muses, “to be a Jew.”
If there isn’t already a genre called “Jewish Noir,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has invented it with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. He wields the alternate-history trope with a light touch, just enough to set up a world simultaneously familiar and disorienting, and plunges his booze-soaked flatfoot into a bizarre mystery that will be either his death or his redemption. It’s an absorbing read, full of memorable characters, astonishing descriptive prose, and the smart-aleck wisecracks beloved by fans of Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Chabon helpfully provides a brief Yiddish lexicon in the back of the book, but most of the ethnic lingo is easily decipherable from its context. Chabon marinates his alternate Sitka in a credible Jewish diaspora culture, tinged with American and Tlingit influences, and it doesn’t take long to believe his grafting of gritty noir sensibilities onto a sleepy Alaska panhandle city, however crazy that sounds on its face.
Though it launched strong and sustained an admirable velocity and trajectory through nearly 300 pages, it didn’t quite stick the landing for me, falling back on some stereotypical villains motivated by a plot twist that felt like it dropped from the literary bomb-bay of a Jerry B. Jenkins thriller. Ah, well. Once past that odd lapse, the story returned to its strengths and its focus on the central characters, finally unmasking the killer and recounting the circumstances of the murder, and I left content, if not fully satisfied, with the outcome.
In sum, a good read, particularly for fans of mystery and noir, masterfully written. Chabon’s vivid, tactile mind-painting of characters and landscapes alone are worth the price of admission.
Note: The sensitive reader should expect a lot of harsh language—the story confirms the old adage that English is the language to swear in, even in a community where everybody converses primarily in Yiddish. A series of personal tragedies has caused Landsman to abandon his faith in God, and he expresses disdain, anger, and bitterness toward God, and those motivated by their belief in God, often in graphic terms.