As Terry Rafferty notes in “Cops and Rabbis,” his review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon “has in recent years become a zealous proselytizer for a more genre-inflected and plot-friendly sort of literary fiction.” Detective fiction has been one such genre, which he first explored in The Final Solution, a mystery set in the English countryside during World War II and featuring a retired 89-year-old detective rumored to be Sherlock Holmes and a young German refugee. It is a lovely novel, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed in surprise that a mystery novel would “appeal to the real writer.”
Fans of Chabon and of detective fiction will love The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a bizarre and brilliant noir detective novel set in an alternative reality in contemporary Alaska, where Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered for the past 60 years. Specifically, the novel is set in the Federal District of Sitka, a temporary “homeland” created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel.
The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.
Our protagonist is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective with plenty of his own problems on top of the upcoming Reversion. His marriage is a wreck, his career a dead end. And in the cheap hotel where he lives, someone has just committed a murder. But as he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped. Immediately. Landsman, the classic Jewish detective, must contend with the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.
As Publishers Weekly wrote: “Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin ‘as pale as a page of commentary’ and rough voices ‘like an onion rolling in a bucket.'”