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Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

In many respects, this novel can be seen as the fairly standard modern detective story, with many of the usual clichés. The detective hero is divorced, drinks too much, smokes too much, has a a good buddy whom he works closely with, is insubordinate, a loose cannon, who breaks the rules but gets the results. He is faced with what seems like a fairly routine murder but which, of course, is going to be both career-defining and reveal a global conspiracy. Oh, and his sister died in an accident a few years ago and you just know that her death is going to be somehow involved with the murder and the global conspiracy.

But Chabon has a new twist on this stereotype. No, it’s not just that our hero is Jewish (though he is but there have been Jewish cops before) but that his book in an alternate history. In 1939, US Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes proposed using Alaska as a haven for Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. His proposals were not supported and the project died. Chabon takes as the basis for his novel that the plan was adopted and that there was large Jewish immigration to Alaska. There are several consequences of this. Firstly, though the Holocaust did take place, the numbers of Jews killed was far fewer that actually occurred – some two million being killed. Secondly, though the state of Israel was created in 1948, it lasted only three months. Thirdly, there was naturally opposition from many non-Jews in the United States and the Jews were not granted permanent residency status. At the start of this novel the semi-autonomous status of the Jews in the Sitka area is under threat and with it the right of those Jews who do not have a residency permit to stay there.

Our hero is Meyer Landsman, detective in the Sitka Jewish police. (Though the area is occupied mainly by Jews, there is the occasional non-Jewish American, Filipinos and the native Americans, the Tlingits.) His father had been a very keen chess player and had expected his son to follow in his footsteps. As a result, Meyer had been expected to play and study chess for much of his childhood. He had hated it but was afraid to tell his father. Finally, he sent his father a letter by post, telling him that he no longer wished to play chess. Two days later, his father killed himself. Meyer naturally felt very guilty about this. His father’s suicide and other family issues are, of course, all explained during the course of the novel. Meyer’s father’s brother Hertz was also a keen chess player and also a stereotypical local boss. He wanted to help his people but was prepared to use whatever means, often illegal and/or immoral to achieve that end. In the end he was exposed in the press and had to resign. Hertz had married not a Jewess but a full-blooded Tlingit woman. When she died, he left his son, Berko, with his sister, Freydl, Meyer’s mother, to be brought up, since he was, as he said to his son, an unsuitable father. Berko was therefore brought up with Meyer and Meyer’s sister Naomi. Berko was devoted to Meyer, five years his senior, so when Meyer joined the police, he joined five years later and they are still working together. Berko was brought up a Jew so behaved like a Jew, dressed like a Jew and acted like Jew but looked like a full-blooded Tlingit, tall and big and very intimidating. He is happily married, with two sons and, early in the novel, his wife, Ester-Malke, again becomes pregnant.

Meyer had married a fellow police officer, Bina, but they had divorced so Meyer is now living in a flophouse, the Hotel Zamenhof. At the start of the novel, he is woken up by the night manager, who tells him that one of the other inhabitants, a man called Emanuel Lasker, is dead. On investigation, Meyer finds that he has been shot once in the back head, execution-style. There is little evidence. Meyer finds a chess set, set up in the middle of a game. Meyer and we realise that this is important. Lasker is known to be a heroin addict but little else is known about him. The novel tells the tale of Meyer’s investigation of Lasker’s murder. Of course, we soon found out that the name Emanuel Lasker is false (Lasker was a famous chess player long since dead.) Many of the other standard clichés are used. Meyer is told to stop the investigation more than once, both by his superior as well as by others. Inevitably, he is only able to solve the crime when he has been suspended from the police force for disobeying this order. He is nearly killed numerous times, upsets very important people and gets involved in a major conspiracy, involving the Messiah, US politics and various members of his own family. In the background is his relationship with his ex-wife, the issue of the Jews in Alaska and whether they will be allowed to stay and the culture of the Jews in Alaska with a little about their relations with the Tlingits. The whole novel is great fun as Chabon, as always, tells a wonderful tale, full of humour, lots of action and, of course, many twists and turns. At the same time, as he tells this alternate history of the Jews he raises issues about the Jews and their relationship with other nationalities in a serious way but without shoving it down our throats. In other words, you can read this as a fun detective story or as a fun detective story with serious issues to raise.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by HarperCollins