The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
"Strange times to be a Jew."
I suppose that could be said about any time in history, but never so true as in Chabon's Hugo and Nebula winning novel from 2007. It's an alternate history tale, but actually as much a detective noir as it is SF, sort of like Raymond Chandler as written by Solomon Rabinovich by way of Jackie Mason. A tragedy that at times reads as a comedy.
In this world a Jewish refugee state was created in 1941 on Barenof Island off the coast of Alaska's panhandle. The major city of this Jewish enclave is Sitka. Also, the formation of the nation of Israel failed in 1948, and many nations of the world have imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration. Even Sitka is a temporary home, as the United States intends to regain sovereignty over the district just a few months after the events in the novel commence. It is set in the time of its writing, this other world's own 2007. There are several mentions of other alternate history events; the nuclear bombing of Berlin in 1946 that ends World War II, a recent war in Cuba that sounds a lot like our own experience in Vietnam, as well as a movie that was never produced in our world, Orson Welles' adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
The protagonist is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, chain-smoking homicide detective with the Sitka Central police force. He lives in squalor at a run-down hotel, estranged from his ex-wife (and former partner) Bina Gelbfish. His current partner is his cousin, Berko Shemets, a half-Jew, half native Indian, who at one time idolized Meyer, but now just pities him. The story begins with Meyer's hotel manager awakening him late one evening to investigate the death of another resident, shot in the back of the head gangland execution style. I won't go into any details about the plot, but as with many a noir tale the initial crime is just the tip of the iceberg, with many suspects and multiple interlocking scenarios vying for the detective's attention. He is warned off the case early by his new superior, his ex-wife Bina, but true to the nature of a maverick detective this just makes him more determined to follow all clues, even ones that seem to lead toward previous cases, one of a very personal nature. The events that lead up to that murder might seem contrived to some readers, but I've heard of several conspiracy theories that say similar events have actually taken place in the real world, and for the same reasons.
The narrative style is third person, but elaborately dramatic and/or comedic it its descriptions of the characters and events, at times almost too farcical. I like the hard-boiled style of Chandler and Hammett, and while Yiddish has some of that, it could have done without what I am sure the author thought were clever asides. This is the first book by Chabon that I have read, and while I did enjoy it there were times I felt he was going too far in that direction. It is a style that will probably work better on the screen if the Coen brother's ever get around to their proposed adaptation, but for the book it was an element that caused me to rate it a bit lower than might otherwise be the case. While it was worth reading I'm not sure I'll ever be interested in reading it again, and it surprises me it won both the Hugo and Nebula, although I've only read one of the other novels on the final ballots that year.
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