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Terrific alternate-history detective novel

  • Aug 23, 2007
Chabon, master of metaphor and the exuberant author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," now turns his multi-talented hand to the Jewish speculative alternate-history detective-noir novel.

Morose, keen-eyed, alcoholic Meyer Landsman is the best homicide detective in the temporary Jewish state of Sitka, Alaska. Divorced, he's been marking time at a fleabag motel until Sitka reverts back to American control in two months time and the Jews are once again dispersed.

The US bestowed Sitka on the Jews after the shocking post-Holocaust failure of the infant Jewish state in 1948, but only as a 60-year reprieve. What happens next is anyone's guess. The one thing that's clear is that the Jews will not be invited to stay.

So there hardly seems much point in pursuing the murder of a solitary chess-playing heroin junkie. Indeed, Landsman's new boss - his ex-wife Bina - tells him and his partner to drop it and concentrate on closing their outstanding cases or consigning them, along with the new case, to cabinet nine.

"Filing a case in cabinet nine saves less space but is otherwise the same as lighting it on fire and taking the ashes out for a walk in a gale-force wind."

The mystery of the junkie's death, though it turns out to carry considerable weight, at first seems a lot less compelling than the characters and setting.

Landsman comes with considerable baggage. His father, a fanatical, tormented chess player, came to Sitka a refugee from the German camps, his whole family wiped out. He committed suicide while Landsman was still a boy and his primary legacy to his son was a deep and abiding loathing of chess.

Landsman's father had a friend, Hertz Shemets, who escaped Europe a little sooner and landed in Alaska, where he proceeded to put down roots and tentacles, running counterintelligence for the FBI and siring a Tlinglit son. His sister married Landsman Sr.

So Berko Shemets, Hertz' Indian son, is Meyer Landsman's cousin. After his mother's death in a riot between Jews and Indians, Berko came to live with the Landsmans and grew to revere Meyer. He even became a cop because Meyer became a cop. And now they are partners and the scales have mostly fallen from Berko's eyes.

Sitka itself is a place where it rains 200 days a year. "Fat streamers of fog twist along the streets, smearing headlights and neon, blotting out the harbor, leaving a track of oily silver beads on the lapels of coats and the crowns of hats."

The Jews may have no homeland but the Indians they replaced in Sitka do - and they want it back.

Against this background of history, hostility, incongruity and uncertainty, Landsman tenaciously works at the murder of the junkie, who called himself by the name of a dead chess master and turns out to be carrying considerable baggage himself.

As Landsman and Berko work the case it takes them into every corner and angle of Sitka from the tough ex-Israeli commandos to the impenetrable "black-hat" sects who have recreated exact replicas of their European shtetls; from the history of modern Jewry to the promises of the ancients, from the core of prejudice to the accidents and consequences of history.

Chabon's gift for description is a marvel; his visuals leap off the page. His language is brilliant, dazzling, breathtaking, but it never just flaunts itself for beauty's sake. Every word advances the narrative.

Here's a glimpse of his meeting with the boundary maven, the man whose complicated and essential service for the black-hat community will gain Landsman a toe-hold entry.

"The maven's face is bony, mostly nose and chin, evolved for noticing, probing, cutting straight to gaps, breaches, and lapses. His full ashy beard flutters in the wind like bird fluff caught on a barbed-wire fence. In a hundred years of helplessness, this would be the last face that Landsman would ever turn to hoping for aid or information, but Berko knows more about black-hat life than Landsman ever will."

A terrific, complex novel, with a hint of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko in the protagonist and a story only Michael Chabon could write.

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More The Yiddish Policemen's Union:... reviews
review by . January 20, 2008
This is my second Chabon, following Kavalier & Clay, and I find him a very good writer. He takes the conventions of a genre, stirs them into a bold stew of Jewish history, culture, and personality, prepares the dish with infinite attention to the craft, and the result is an unclassifiable but completely edible meal that must be devoured to the end, even when the reader can't quite identify the taste on his tongue or what makes it so good.    Lets start with the unclassifiable …
review by . July 02, 2007
I have read, and thoroughly enjoyed, several earlier books by Mr. Chabon, so I approached this new one with great enthusiasm. First of all, he creates an alternate history of the world, where John Kennedy marries Marilyn Monore, the atomic bomb is dropped on Berlin in 1946, there appears to have been a war in or with Cuba, and in 1948 the Jews are swept out of Palestine by the Arabs and become settled in the Sitka area of Alaska, with a 50 year grace period offered by the U.S.. All of this is a …
review by . May 05, 2007
Chabon, Michael. "The Yiddish Policemen's Union",  Harper Collins, 2007.      And Now for Something Completely Different...    Amos Lassen and Literary Pride    For a change of pace, I decided to review a book with no gay themes or subplots. I happen to like Michael Chabon and although some of you may have detected a bit of a gay theme in his other works, his new book "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" does not have any. …
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Lynn Harnett ()
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I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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[Signature]Reviewed byJess WalterThey are the "frozen Chosen," two million people living, dying and kvetching in Sitka, Alaska, the temporary homeland established for displaced World War II Jews in Chabon's ambitious and entertaining new novel. It is—deep breath now—a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller, so perhaps it's no surprise that, in the back half of the book, the moving parts become unwieldy; Chabon is juggling narrative chainsaws here.The novel begins—the same way that Philip Roth launchedThe Plot Against America—with a fascinating historical footnote: what if, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement had been established on the Alaska panhandle? Roosevelt's plan went nowhere, but Chabon runs the idea into the present, back-loading his tale with a haunting history. Israel failed to get a foothold in the Middle East, and since the Sitka solution was only temporary, Alaskan Jews are about to lose their cold homeland. The book's timeless refrain: "It's a strange time to be a Jew."Into this world arrives Chabon's Chandler-ready hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find that one of his neighbors has been murdered. With his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and his sexy-tough boss, who happens also to be his ex-wife, Landsman investigates a fascinating underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis. Chabon's "Alyeska" is ...
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ISBN-10: 0007149824
ISBN-13: 978-0007149827
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: HarperCollins

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