Who Let the Snakes Out?

A serial killer releasing venomous serpents among the Haredi population of Jerusalem sounds like a promising premise for a mystery. Unfortunately, Asher Kravitz forgot to include any suspense.

Kalman Kimmerling: Hoker Prati Be'ezrat Hashem (Kalman Kimmerling: Private Eye, With the Help of God ), by Asher KravitzYedioth Books (Hebrew ), 318 pages, NIS 88

I read "Kalman Kimmerling: Private Eye, With the Help of God" over two separate periods, several weeks apart. Could there be a more devastating criticism of a suspense novel? A detective thriller, even the most mediocre, is supposed to grip you and not let you put it down. And even if for some reason you do have to put it down -- if, say, you fall asleep, or the boss is keeping an eye on you -- its plot and heroes and victims should haunt you. Well, Kalman Kimmerling never haunted me, even for a second, and neither did his hunt for the perpetrators of the viper murders.

Asher Kravitz had a great idea: a thriller about an ultra-Orthodox private eye, a genuine Haredi shamus. A book with such a pioneering concept deserves some critical leeway, but it's hard to find anything good to say about a suspense novel that lacks suspense. One reason for this absence is that the mystery isn't much of a mystery. The solution is so obvious that it's not clear why the police had to turn to Kimmerling to arrive at it. Another reason is the lack of any effort on the author's part to build up an atmosphere of menace and fear. What may be the scariest scene in the book begins like this: "After she switched on the light in the mikveh room, she almost gave up the ghost: A man's body was floating in the water."

My response to this sentence was something along the lines of, "Oh, really?"

Perhaps I suffer from a surfeit of television series such as "Dexter" and "Criminal Minds," making my excitement threshold too high. However, I was not the only one who remained unmoved by the discovery of a male corpse in the female ritual bath. Even Leah Frumie, the mikveh attendant, despite having almost given up the ghost, was hardly worked up about it, and neither were the cops. In reality, a murder such as this, let alone the serial killings featured in the book, would have thrown the whole Haredi community into a tizzy. But there is no mass hysteria here, and nothing to suggest that the populace is either scared or anxious.

Furthermore, it's tough to identify with the characters, either living or slain, because most of them are as thin as the paper on which their tale is told. This means that for the entire length of the book, you remain indifferent to who assaults or kills whom, who breaks into whose house, and even who has let poisonous snakes loose in Mea Shearim. The only mystery that kept my interest alive was whether Kalman the P.I. and Leah the mikveh attendant, whose husband has refused to grant her a divorce, would surrender to their impulses and consummate their mutual desire -- and as this is the most important mystery in the book, I shall refrain from revealing the answer.

Incidentally, it is not only I who views the repressed romance as more important than the unsolved crimes. Even Zupnik the locksmith refuses to help Kimmerling break into the home of Sarinyan the Armenian merely to help him find evidence that would absolve Zupnik himself of suspicion. But when Zupnik hears that the break-in could help Leah Frumie get the divorce she wants, he is persuaded to abet the burglary.

Kravitz provides fairly accurate depictions of the Haredi way of life: lofty values alongside material impoverishment, religious fanaticism alongside internal criticism of it. But there are some lapses. When Kimmerling is accused of being a moser, someone who collaborates with the secular authorities, he responds with the same apathy that Frumie displayed upon finding the body in the mikveh -- despite this possibly being the gravest charge that an ultra-Orthodox person could face from his neighbors.

In reality, any Haredi like Kimmerling, who regularly helps the police and sometimes even brings about the arrest of ultra-Orthodox offenders, would live under the shadow of the moser accusation for his whole life. This is not something that should simply be ignored throughout the entire book. Another departure from reality comes when the book cites racy crime reports from Yated Neeman, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, disregarding the fact that one of the main reasons such papers exist is to spare readers the gory crime accounts that appear in the secular papers.

These inaccuracies might have been excused if the novel had been an exciting thriller, but apart from the love affair between Kimmerling and Frumie, what is there in this book that makes it worth reading? Well, there are some memorable sentences and phrases uttered by the characters that you may want to use yourself some day, such as "Boy Scout scum" or the following sentence that could serve as ammunition on your next Friday night social gathering: "The veracity of the Bible does not depend on historical reality. There are events that actually happened but are complete fictions, and there are stories that never happened and yet there are no greater truths than them." Magical.

Shahar Ilan is an analyst of ultra-Orthodox affairs and serves as deputy director for research and publicity for Hiddush -- For Religious Freedom and Equality.

Haaretz Books, February 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com