Solving the Mystery of the Israeli Detective

Dror Mishani's Detective Avraham Avraham is cautious and skeptical, and mainly, he was burned once before when he believed the wrong man. On his second case, he's not believing a soul.

Tirtza Flohr
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Tirtza Flohr

“He looked at her and knew she was lying”

− from “The Possibility of Violence”

“Reasonable person” is a legal concept, but despite the ostensible reasonableness assumed of such a person, there is something unreasonable about him. Because he is slippery, this reasonable person. He can keep to the straight and narrow all his life, and in an instant find himself in distress or in trouble, and do unreasonable things. Or perhaps his actions may be completely reasonable given the unreasonable situation he is in. In any case, when a person murders another person, he deviates at that moment from the definition of the reasonable person forever.

Dror Mishani’s new novel, “The Possibility of Violence,” like the first in his police detective series ‏(called “The Missing File” in English‏), lays out a reasonable world and destroys it. Its protagonist, Detective Avraham Avraham, lives and works in Holon, one of the reasonable cities in Israel: without a “seam line,” without excessive coexistence, even without an Ikea.

Daily police life inherently dooms him to an encounter with challenges to proper order, but the detective’s life is peaceful. He is not filled with rage about the world’s injustices; he is not burned out, in the way you might expect of one who witnesses daily the pain and destruction human beings inflict on each other. No, no, his life at the opening of the novel is even surprisingly good. His girlfriend is about to come to Israel from Brussels and live with him in Holon. He even goes to work in white shorts and a peach-colored shirt. That’s how optimistic he is.

Still in his leisure wear, Detective Avraham volunteers to question a man suspected of planting a dummy explosive device near a preschool. Though it was in a suitcase and not destined to explode, it represented a clear-cut threat. The detective, and the reader along with him, does not know yet that this is just the tip of the dragon’s tail.

The suspect who leads to the opening of an investigation into the case is a known felon, whom Avraham assumes is lying. That seems reasonable on his part. It would seem, on the face of it, that cops in the line of duty are a sector of the population that is exposed to more lies than others.

A traffic cop gets to hear all manner of Arabian Nights-like stories on a daily basis − and a detective, even more so. Avraham knows this too: He is cautious and he is skeptical, and mainly, he was burned once before when he believed the wrong man. On this case, he’s not believing a soul.

From there he moves on to questioning the preschool teacher, a nasty but sophisticated woman; to sniffing around the nearby store and among the neighbors, in the quiet and crime-free neighborhood; and afterward proceeds to interrogate parents. Especially one parent, a man named Chaim Sarah, who had an altercation with the preschool teacher the day before the suitcase showed up. He works methodically, efficiently; his ears are particularly attuned to false notes.

It is easy for the reader to follow in the logic of Detective Avraham’s footsteps. He is organized, he is cautious, he is human. He is the good cop, even if there is no bad cop beside him for comparison. In contrast to him, the reader is given clues before him on where he needs to go, while Avraham feels his way, advances, retreats and misses things. But it’s easy to forgive him. For why shouldn’t he make mistakes?

The detective is first and foremost a reasonable person. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, isn’t addicted to anything and isn’t stricken with eccentricities. A bit lonely, perhaps, but makes a point of visiting his parents on weekends and holidays. So very reasonable that you wonder what such a reasonable person has to do with literature. With crime fiction? Or a police career in general? But here he is. And if he is reasonable, then it is reasonable to presume he will make mistakes. Mainly when the darkness in which he walks is transparent.

Cracking cases

“What appears alien turns out to be close”

− from “The Possibility of Violence”

Avraham Avraham, and the reader along with him, waits for the case to be cracked, for that moment when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and the picture becomes clear. But in his investigations, contrary to what he declares − what actually appears to be close turns out to be alien. A preschool, the epitome of innocence and sweetness, gets hit with an ugly threat in the form of a suitcase bomb. A man without a criminal record, a quiet and harmless citizen, turns out to be a very dangerous person. Avraham’s girlfriend, for whom he waits, confident that she will get on a plane and come to him, sounds very far away. And even the peach shirt suddenly seems utterly silly to him.

Detective Avraham tries to go against his own nature − trusting, gentle, almost naive. He isn’t always successful. When he looks for a girl for questioning and is informed that she went away, he does not order his colleagues to get their hands on her nonetheless. They said she was away, so she was away. When his beloved doesn’t answer and return his phone calls, he tries again, telling himself that she turned off her phone, that she fell asleep, that she’s busy. Despite his adamant pronouncements, it takes him time to stand up for himself, to direct his gaze to what is blinking in the corner of his eye, and when he does that, he sees the dragon.

But first, Avraham is trusting: When a 57-year-old father stands before him, his first instinct is empathy. He imagines himself standing there in the preschool, amid kids who could have been his grandchildren, amid parents who could have been his children, and his heart goes out to the man. He can sense the embarrassment.

And nevertheless, he insists. When a reasonable person discovers that the preschool teacher abused his 3-year-old son, is he capable of hitting the teacher just like that, in a fit of fury? Is he capable of threatening her that he will hurt her if she doesn’t stop? If not this man, then another father, some father? An Israeli father, from Holon, a reasonable father. Avraham believes that he is. His colleagues wave the father’s clean record in his face. No, they tell him: to threaten others, you have to be a criminal. Luckily, the detective maintains his suspicion.

Maybe it is the Israeliness that makes this book alien and yet close at one and the same time. The characters are familiar, the Holon streets, the personnel problem at holiday time; you can easily imagine the detective who brings a sandwich to work from home. Nor has the Israeli reader any trouble filling in what has been left unwritten: The Rosh Hashanah ambience descending on the city, a Yom Kippur holiday that switches off the sounds and shuts down the country. Nevertheless, Israel as seen here is free of coarseness.

Into the police station comes a man nearing 60, with small children, whose wife ‏(who is not even his second wife‏) is a Filipina 15 years his junior − and nobody says a single nasty, judgmental, suspicious word. Just as nobody comments on the peach-colored shirt the detective is sporting. There is no joking around, no sexism, no summons to the internal affairs department. It seems like this is not actually a reasonable Israeli police station. Maybe that’s because of the choice, in advance, of using the setting of Holon, whose most vibrant seam-line is with Tel Aviv, whose cops aren’t for example called in to do an emergency shift on the Temple Mount on Friday. But it has old people and it has Filipinos, like any self-respecting city.

And perhaps it’s the suitcase, the object that accompanies Avraham for a second case in a row. A trivial object that becomes a Pandora’s box, containing horrors within it. And in the consciousness of the Israeli reader resonate memories of a certain girl, who was murdered and her body was tossed in a suitcase into the Yarkon River. Detective Avraham does not mention her. He doesn’t need to.

No triumphal joy

“How is it that this time around nobody forgot?”

− from “the Possibility of Violence”

Maybe all these oddities direct the reader even closer, even more inward. When the reading is over, at the end of the winding road, when the case is closed and the truth comes out, after it turns out that Avraham Avraham may indeed make mistakes but also knows how to shine − then sorrow takes over. There is no triumphal joy of a detective who got a threat off the streets. There is no joy at all. The catharsis of resolution fades into sorrow.

If the book is hard to put down while reading it, then at the end it refuses to let go of the reader. And here, in my eyes, lie the beauty and power of Mishani’s new book. Its hero successfully uncovers crimes, but under cover of the police crime narrative the protagonist is exposed to the range of love. Not romance, not passion, but a mother’s love and a father’s love.

And this Avraham Avraham does by means of his research object, when against all odds and the opinion of his superiors, he sticks to this one guy, the older father from the preschool: a married man, not eccentric and not a loner. Brings the kid to the preschool, swings by the Interior Ministry every day before noon with a carton of sandwiches, maybe one of the clerks or those waiting in line will want to buy one with tuna; he’s surrounded by family, meets people every day, and yet is detached. And nobody notices when a string breaks, when his world goes out of kilter. Only Chaim Sarah’s mother. And she reacts as he knows a mother should react.

This man’s mother is still there for him when he is 57. Always. Protecting her overgrown chick even when he crosses every line. Thanks to her he exists, thanks to her he is a father himself, thanks to her he is free. She is the only one he can count on. Only she has a foothold in his inner world, even when it grows more distant from reality. Even if he made a home of his own, the umbilical chord was never severed.

The seminal crime of this book is a crime of love. A crime from excessive love, from excessive lack of love. For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet, the precise nature of the crime will not be described here, but the manner in which it is woven in and gradually becomes clear to the reader, and to Avraham Avraham, does not allow for relief and rejoicing when the investigation comes to a close. The rational scenarios are ruled out one after another, everything reasonable is defeated, and the world revealed to Avraham is built from the bricks of reality − and yet is monstrous. The dummy device that did not go off in the first act turns up in another suitcase. And what explodes is the heart of a father who fell into the abyss.

I wish we could say that such things can’t really happen.

Dror Mishani. If the book is hard to put down while reading it, then at the end it refuses to let go of the reader.Credit: Gali Eitan
Neighbors gazing out at the scene of a murder.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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