Michael Chabon is a writer that many other writers are envious of: he’s young, he’s brilliant, and his books will undoubtedly survive long after his is gone. Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay aside, Chabon’s writing seems almost effortless, but is pure craft and magic. Unlike John Irving, who plots out the complete story beforehand, and then meticulously crafts each sentence and paragraph to be perfect (which is why he can take up to five years to finish a book), Chabon has both the story and ability from the start in creating his piece of art.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, like his other books, takes you to a place you never could’ve imagined. In this alternate reality, during the time of the Second World War, two million Jews are transported from Germany to Alaska, where they create their own small civilization meshed in the bitterness of their treatment in Germany and their treatment in Alaska, a cold and distant place from the contiguous United States. The main city is known as Sitka, but there is little independence, and any whisperings of nationalization are immediately quashed. Yiddish is the primary language, with very little American spoken. Little happens in this people’s history from World War II to the present, other than a pathetic World’s Fair that now only retains the constant reminder of the reaching stone structure known as the Safety Pin. Sitka is not a happy place for anyone, as they dream of Zion and their return to their true home.
Landsman is our main character, a policeman who’s been in the service for many years but has little to show for it, apart from a trashed hotel room, a failed marriage, a dead sister, and his own depression over the state of his life. And it is then that he finds out about the dead body in the room nearby. A man has been murdered and the case begins. With his partner, Landsman travels around the area, picking up clues, and trying to piece together the ever-growingly complex case. At the same time, his ex-wife returns to the precinct now as his boss, with the news that big changes are happening and all outstanding cases must be dealt with post haste. But as Landsmen digs deeper, he finds a larger plot taking place, involving more bodies, and more importantly the death of his sister. The pressure increases from important people in high places, as Landsman with the help of his partner and ex-wife – who he is growing close to again – get closer and closer to the truth.
While my hope is that Chabon will return to this incredibly developed world in future stories, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is nevertheless a thrilling mystery: a Sherlock Holmes case with a Jewish twist, that keeps the reader hanging on until the end when the case is solved, and everyone seems happy. However, the state of Sitka and these many homeless Jews remains in jeopardy, to be resolved perhaps at a later date.
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Originally written on April 29th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.