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The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

1/01/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Yiddish Policemen's Union in the USA - or Buy The Yiddish Policemen's Union in the UK

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pub. Fourth Estate, London. 411 page hardback. Price: 17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-00-715039-7).

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Michael Chabon is a respected mainstream author who has used a Science Fiction trope to tell the story that he wants to tell. This is a crime thriller which is also an alternative world story. The background is that the atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin rather than Japan. As a consequence, the Jews in 1948 were settled in a district on the Northern coast of Alaska. This hardly impinges on the thrust of the plot but colours events as the lease of the territory was for sixty years and that time is almost up. Many of the community fear eviction.

The principal character is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective. He is a typical shambolic policeman that is a hallmark of much modern crime fiction. He is divorced from his wife and lives in a flophouse. He drinks too much to dull the grief for his dead son (aborted due to genetic abnormalities) and a dead sister. His partner, Berko, has his own problems. Berko's mother was a native Indian, but he desperately wants to be accepted as a Jew and is probably more orthodox than most others in the community.

The novel opens as an old man in one of the other rooms of Landsman's building is discovered with a bullet through his head. The only clue Landsman has is that Laskar, the victim, played chess regularly. Then his ex-wife is appointed as his immediate superior and she tells him to shelf the case. He suspects she is being instructed from elsewhere and his natural curiosity is unable to let it lie.

In one respect this can be regarded as a classic detective novel. However, Chabon has the ability to build characters that are utterly convincing and he refuses to make it easy for them. At every step in this case, Landsman is confronted by reminders of the past, hints of things he would rather not know about. He would prefer to find the killer and bring him to justice quickly before the reversion of the territory means that everyone will be involved in a great upheaval. Everything he finds out leads to complications, including political machinations. He finds he is up against the rich and powerful who do not want him interfering, but he objects to people trying to kill him and when he discovers that his sister was an innocent victim of their schemes, he refuses to let go.

This is a skilfully plotted novel in a carefully constructed setting a worthy of high regard in the Science Fiction genre.

Pauline Morgan

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