The Big Mystery: Dror Mishani on Why Israelis Don't Write Crime Novels

My hope is that by my tenth book, Avi Avraham will be no less brilliant than Sherlock Holmes,' says the author of 'The Missing File.'

Why do you think crime novels don’t do so well here?

Mishani: What I know for certain is that attempts to write or translate detective novels always ran into powerful resistance here.

Because they are considered an inferior genre?

Because Hebrew literature was founded as part of the national project, and was always committed to themes of the national present, the national past, the national identity and the future. A detective does not deeply occupy himself with questions of national identity. That is why Hebrew literature has always rejected this genre.

There was a moment in the 1930s [in prestate Israel] when an attempt was made to start translating Sherlock Holmes stories, and a few original detective novels were also written. The project generated fierce opposition on the part of critics and members of the literary establishment. They branded it a disaster. The few who backed the project did so on national grounds, as a way to teach the young generation Hebrew. Youngsters will find it difficult to learn Hebrew from [Uri Nissan] Gnessin or [Yosef Haim] Brenner, because they are hard to read, so they will learn Hebrew from detective novels. Sherlock Holmes was translated into Hebrew as children’s and juvenile literature. That is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Those books are violent, blood-drenched. I have them at home, in the Marganit edition.

Arthur Conan Doyle was absolutely not a children’s writer. That is unbelievable. And there are other reasons, of course. In Israeli culture it is very difficult to imagine the policeman as a hero. The soldier is a hero, the Mossad agent is a hero, but the cop is “Policeman Azoulay” [referring to an iconic 1970 film about an antihero police officer].

From the outset the policeman’s representation is slightly lowered, made slightly ridiculous, having in part to do with the fact that, historically and sociologically, policemen were Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin]. Accordingly, it was complicated to make the policeman a hero. In my books I take all these things into account. Avraham is not a hero, because it is impossible to make a hero out of a Mizrahi cop. It is simply impossible. My hope is that one day it will be possible − that by the tenth book he will be no less brilliant than Sherlock Holmes.

What draws you to the crime genre?

I really enjoy writing in this genre. You don’t have to make a pretense of being original: you write a detective novel, and obviously it draws on thousands of other detective novels. And you admit that, too. I also very much like, both as a writer and reader, the serial concept − the fact that you come back to the same character across his life and yours. I’ve been reading [Georges] Simenon’s Maigret novels since I was 20, and I will still be reading them when I am 60.

I see it as absolutely Proustian: to write a life from the beginning to the end. I will have Avraham Avraham to accompany me, and I hope I will be able to write about him when he retires and, if I feel like it, I will also be able to write of him at the age of 20.

Your first novel, “The Missing File,” was published in the United States in March. How was it received?

Commercially it’s still too soon to know, but it’s had good reviews − including in The New York Times − and it has been recommended by good writers. That is truly surprising and heartening.

How do you explain it?

I don’t have an explanation. I was told that it would be difficult, that what readers abroad look for in Israeli literature is precisely the Israeliness, the national identity and the conflicts. Yet here, the opposite happened. I got an endorsement from [Swedish crime writer] Henning Mankell. I’ve never met him. My German publisher, who is also his publisher, asked him to read the book.

As a generalization, detectives are usually colorless characters − always alone, quite poor, drinking problems. Yet even by those standards your character is dull.

I was really interested in a detective who makes mistakes, a detective who is not sure of himself − the opposite of Sherlock Holmes. Now I ask myself how this is related to the fact that, in my theoretical research, I reached the conclusion that the detective is always wrong.

What do you mean?

You can read any detective story in two ways: once, when you believe the detective and go along with him; and a second time when you do not accept his assumptions and say that the person whom the detective has declared to be the murderer is not really the murderer. The text actually allows you your assumption. I think the detective genre comes into its own when the critical question of “How we know” arises − how we know who actually committed the crime. There was no mystery in crime stories before the invention of the detective. Those stories are always set in a small rural community, and when a stranger arrives, or when the local bad person does something wrong, everyone knows about the crime and who committed it. In England, story collections were published about how criminals in the famous Newgate Prison [in London] were apprehended. But those stories were not structured as mysteries.

They started with the solution.

Exactly. A case in point is the story of [19th century killer] Thomas Sharpe, who entered a village [in London] one day, murdered Elizabeth Dobbins and was seen. The transition to the detective story is concurrent with growing urbanization. In the city, people don’t know one another, but there are still no fingerprints or DNA. There is nothing. What happens is that the detective proposes himself as one who sees for everyone. Think of Holmes. A crime is committed, no one understands what happened, and then Holmes appears and says: “This is what happened.”

But what Holmes says happened, really did happen in the books.

Sherlock Holmes is a genius who knows everything, but at the same time he is a drug addict, depressed and has serious psychological problems. Strange things happen with him. Let’s say that wherever he goes, a murder occurs. How can that be? Which comes first: the murder or the detective? On the face of it, the murder came first and then the detective arrived. But if you look closely, it’s the opposite. First there was the detective, and then the murder was committed. The detective needs the murder more than the murder needs the detective.

Are you accusing Holmes of murder?

Of course. In the first pages of the first novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes complains that there are no interesting crimes in London. And then − boom! − an interesting murder is committed. So, yes, definitely. There’s an exercise I like to do with my university students. I give them Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot novel to read, but without the ending. It’s an exercise in the way in which we subordinate our knowledge to the knowledge of someone who is supposed to know and to see for us.

Running Holmes stories through my mind, I don’t think the text supports solutions other than his.

You’re right: with Sherlock Holmes it’s impossible, but with Agatha Christie it is possible. It’s as though you are being told to enter a competition with the detective and see which of you knows better. It’s a kind of logical conundrum from which you derive pleasure as a reader by losing. It’s organized so that you will lose. If you arrive at the solution before the detective, the book is not good enough. You enjoy proving to yourself that you don’t know enough, and in this sense every reading of a detective story proves to you that it’s better for someone else to see for you. We can choose to go along with the suspicious character, who is intended, ostensibly, to divert our attention, but it’s possible that if he is really so suspect, maybe it really is him. No one says that the detective is necessarily right.

Are there detectives that are functional characters in society?

Simenon’s Maigret and Mankell’s Kurt Wallander are relatively unscathed mentally. [P.D. James’ Adam] Dalgliesh is also quite normative, all in all.

I think that one of the reasons people are drawn into this work, into the lives of others, is that they [the characters] are messed up in some way. Because of a life crisis. Sherlock Holmes is a prime example. Think about how many Holmes stories start with him calling Watson and saying, “You must come over,” and Watson says he can’t, because he is busy with his wife and work. And so Holmes tells him, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Murder as a sort of temptation dangled before his friend to get him to come over. The investigations fill a certain void. It’s kind of the same with Avraham Avraham, too.

Maybe because so many detectives are characterized as emotionally undeveloped.

I agree. There is a something missing in their personal life, or problems of some kind, and they project this onto the cases they investigate. They are incapable of being self-reflexive. If they have a conflict in their personal life, they don’t know what to do with it. They possess very limited emotional intelligence. They are very reflexive when it comes to the outside world, but when it comes to them they don’t see anything. That is absolutely true. They are blind, certainly to themselves. That only reinforces my argument: If they are so blind about their life, why should we believe them?

I understand that your wife was also very involved in the book. That’s an interesting story in itself. She teaches Hebrew literature but is not an Israeli, right?

Marta is originally from Poland. She fell in love with Hebrew literature and obtained a PhD in the subject. She taught in Warsaw and then at Cambridge, and when we went there my plan was to finish my doctoral dissertation, but instead I wrote “The Missing File.” Afterward, I tried again to write the dissertation, but instead wrote the second novel. I have a feeling that it has to happen now, but I am also thinking about the third novel.

Is it important for you to write Mizrahi characters − almost all the characters in the book are Mizrahi.

It is important for me. At one time, Mizrahi characters were slightly beyond the pale here. The universal hero was Ashkenazi; the Mizrahi hero symbolized his ethnic community. It is very important for me to write a Mizrahi hero who is universal. Avraham does not stand for a particular ethnic group. He is truly the hero, Everyman, but he is Mizrahi.

To what degree is the sense of being Mizrahi present in your life?

Not politically or consciously, but it is present. Much of my family is Mizrahi. My parents’ home is in Holon, in a Mizrahi neighborhood. We recently sat shivah [seven-day mourning period, for Mishani’s late father]. The friends who came, some of them childhood friends whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years, were Mizrahim. Holon is my habitat.

Do you feel that you belong there?

I belong and don’t belong. I belong very much in the sense that that’s the house I grew up in and I know these people very well. But I don’t belong in the sense that much of the world that has become part of me since then is less familiar, even alien, to them.

You feel that you belong to the academic world or the literary milieu.

Yes. There are moments of alienation, but, in the final analysis, yes. It’s also possible that my choice to write detective literature has made me an outsider. It is still considered a disreputable genre. Like it’s not really respectable in Hebrew literature to write a detective novel.

What do you think of Yair Lapid’s detective novels [featuring the private investigator Josh Shirman]?

In the 1990s there were a few attempt to write in the film noir style − the private eye with the tumbler of whiskey and the blonde. I don’t think that works in Hebrew. It doesn’t come across. Something in our milieu isn’t receptive to the detective who wears a leather jacket and spends his days in bars and all that. You would think that the macho detective would go over well in Israel, but that hasn’t been looked into − either in Hebrew or in translations. Besides which, I really don’t like the private investigator. Those plots based on cruising around in which the character happens to enter a bar by chance and meets a blonde there − I don’t like those characters. It’s the import of an American archetype that has no connection to anything. In that sense, there is really no such thing as a private investigator. Investigations of murders and other crimes are conducted by the police.

Do you think technology will ultimately kill off the detective?

I really don’t know. What’s evident is that in the wake of the technology, there is something of a flight back to the historic detective. The trend is less successful in Israel and not widely translated here, but in England, say, it is huge. A reaction. It’s really interesting.

Think of Jack the Ripper, for example, which was the greatest mystery of the time [Victorian Britain]. Given the most basic criminal identification unit, it could have been solved in a second and a half. In half an hour’s work at the computer, I can do what a detective does in the course of a whole book. The fact is, there are pretty much no more mysteries. The cop arrives, takes a DNA sample and that’s it. It won’t be long before there is a DNA database, so you come to the scene, check out the database and you’ve got your man.

Or through the social networks.

Absolutely. Look what just happened in Boston. They had cameras − and that’s all they needed. So we have come full circle back to the original detective, to the criminal who operates in the community and is known to everyone. That’s why we are going back to the historical novel in which the detective has no tools other than the victim’s picture.

Gali Eytan
Gali Eytan