Not Elementary: Israel's Newest Literary Detective Hero Goes Post-modern

In Dror Mishani's new crime novel, ideal for summer reading, Inspector Avraham Avraham takes on the issue of trouble within the nuclear family.

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“A Possibility of Violence,” by D.A. Mishani (translated from the Hebrew by Todd Hasak-Lowy) HarperCollins, 304 pages, $27

Each of Israeli writer D.A. Mishani’s brooding police procedurals opens with a report of a missing child, an element that resonates during these dark days of kidnapped and murdered teenagers, children running to bomb shelters and children who have nowhere to run. Indeed, the failure to protect children, even within the home, is a deep current in “A Possibility of Violence,” the second in Mishani’s series, and now also available in English. “I don’t think it’s possible to save children from their parents,” a character remarks. A mother’s gone missing too. It may very well be that these creepy, primal situations are exactly what make these books and others in the genre so popular and suitable for beach reading. Bad things happen to other people, and we’re still okay, for the moment anyway.

The new release and its predecessor, “The Missing File” (translated by Steven Cohen, HarperCollins, 289 pages, $15, paperback), revolve around cases pursued by an unmarried male police detective of nearly 40 whose job is his life – a typical protagonist in some examples of the genre. As such, Inspector Avraham Avraham, despite his iconic Israeli name, seems a familiar type. We may expect him to resemble Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, a hard-drinking, divorced father in southern Sweden, or the adventure-prone Norwegian Harry Hole in Jo Nesbo’s bestsellers.

Unlike Hole, Avraham doesn’t have many adventures, or not yet. Like Wallander, Inspector Avraham is almost torturously cerebral; his mind circles around details until it settles unhappily on a conclusion. In the new book, he immediately embarks on a new case upon his return from a long vacation in Brussels, the home of Marianka, the Belgian policewoman with whom he fell in love at first sight during a work visit. Most of the time she isn’t present. We are reminded of her existence when Avraham thinks of calling her, or sends her a text message. Marianka serves as an alter ego to correct the detective’s mistakes. Her existence also points to the sensitivity of the character: He is capable of love, although his work would seem to cast doubt on the nature of love in the nuclear family.

At the start of “A Possibility of Violence,” Avraham interrogates a suspect who may have planted a fake bomb near a daycare center in the detective’s working-class hometown, Holon. Without fireworks, Mishani illuminates generally unseen parts of Israel society. The suspect is a petty criminal whose savvy provokes the policeman, but, in the absence of evidence, Avraham must release him. No one has been hurt, although the children and parents are frightened by the police presence at the center. There are no victims yet. Then a second plot is introduced, together with a major character, Chaim Sara, an older man who is the father of two young children, who is described in minute detail as he cares for them and prepares the sandwiches he sells in office buildings to make a living. He has married a foreign worker, no small matter in Israel, where family law is under the jurisdiction of religious authorities and intermarriage is quite rare. She is no longer present, and eventually we’ll find out why.

The lion’s share of the story is given over to Chaim Sara’s meticulous preparations for taking his children to the airport, ostensibly to take a flight to meet their mother. The realistic details are in sharp contrast to the disturbed thinking behind them; genuine suspense is created as this character mulls over his situation as he works.

The choice of relatively anonymous Holon and the limitation of description to a few ordinary streets and apartments creates a bland backdrop to the plot . The underplayed setting highlights the detective’s ruminative nature and allows for a focus on the socio-economic background and psychology of the characters involved in the crimes being investigated, and of the detective as well. Avraham’s parents, for example, are seen leading the ordinary, constricted lives of many elderly people, loving and hovering over their grown children when given the chance. Perhaps they are a bit disappointed in their son for his choice of profession, as it turns out that they are both retired professionals, a lawyer born in Iraq and a literature teacher born in Hungary.

Chaim Sara, the sandwich maker, speaks to his elderly mother in “their language,” soon revealed as Persian. He thinks about his Filipina wife: “There was a cheerfulness in her that was foreign to him.” This observation skirts stereotyping, but rings true. And the Filipina wife isn’t all sweetness and light. Knowing and acknowledging one’s ethnicity is a big element in Israeli life, so I’m waiting to see how this plays out in future books. Of course, while many details are local to Israel, family drama is universal.

In this book, the author focuses not only on the policeman’s thinking but on that of the murderer, whose identity is suspected from early on and confirmed midway through the book; here tension is produced by the gap between what the murderer and the detective know. Will Inspector Avraham catch up in time to apprehend the suspect before he kills again? Or is the detective merely imagining the next murder?

Postmodern approach

Avraham sometimes misses the mark, even when he’s actually solved a crime. We might say that Mishani is a writer of postmodern crime fiction, because there is no one absolute authority and no grand narrative that explains everything in his books. Neither the protagonist nor the reader is treated to a neat ending. The detective is never relieved by the end of case, and neither are we.

It is perhaps not surprising to learn that Mishani, a doctoral candidate and university instructor in Tel Aviv University’s comparative literature department, has a theory about the detective genre and that he has managed to embed it in both these original novels. Fictional detectives, he says, have actually always been wrong in their deductions about whodunit, and the reader may do better if she pays attention.

“The Missing File,” which might have been more accurately titled “The Missing Person File,” as no file goes missing in it, is about the search for a teenage boy who has disappeared. There is also an unappealing teacher who is a wannabe creative writer and wannabe detective and who distracts the police force from the identity of the real killer by inventing false evidence. The wannabe creative writer who doesn’t in fact write but wants to be famous would be amusing if not for the circumstances he creates.

Avraham eventually solves the case, but in something of a postscript, his Belgian girlfriend shows him that he may have been wrong about the motive. Avraham must admit at the end of the book, just as his creator Mishani has him claim in both, that as a detective, he has been mistaken. “Didn’t you tell me,” Marianka asks him, “how you can always prove the detective wrong? Didn’t you say that the true solution is always different from the one that’s given? See? It’s happened to you too.”

As for the translations, by Todd Hasak-Lowy (“A Possibility of Violence”) and Steven Cohen (“The Missing File”), they are excellent overall, recreating the unadorned language of the original. “Unadorned” doesn’t mean flat or uneducated. In general, translators of contemporary Hebrew into English do well to make use of the much larger English vocabulary (because of its myriad roots). Hasak-Lowy, for example, grants a “limber gait” to one character and has the detective “delve” into a case.

Language isn’t in the foreground in these novels, so we don’t want to notice it in translation. Cohen sometimes needlessly presents the reader with the vagaries of Hebrew grammar, as when he writes about “speaking to her in the plural to make her feel she was not alone.” It’s a nice phrase that makes sense in Hebrew but calls attention to itself and becomes puzzling in English. Similarly, he doesn’t really convey the Jewish custom of mourning at home in the phrase “the shivah after the funeral.” Sometimes Cohen makes ordinary items strange, such as a pupil’s notebooks, “one lined and the other squared” – presumably a grid notebook. For his part, Hasak-Lowy in one instance carries a Hebrew form over into English. Hebrew often uses just the adjective in an adjective-plus-noun combination as a noun: for example, calling a station wagon a “station.” But in “Possibility,” the concept of a day-care center is reduced to the unnatural expression “a daycare,” which is repeated so many times one can’t help but notice how unnatural it is when preceded by the article “a.”

The detective fiction genre is not new, and its attractions have been much analyzed. The great poet W.H. Auden, a self-proclaimed “addict,” famously posited in his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage” that one loves such novels because they provide absolution for the guilty reader. They offer, Auden wrote,

“the illusion of being dissociated from the murderer […] the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where [we] may know love as love and not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer. The phantasy of escape is the same, whether one explains the guilt in Christian, Freudian, or any other terms.”

Auden’s premise sounds right, but in Mishani’s books, one is left with the feeling that families, such as they are, are sometimes so fatal to children that no detective, or reader-detective, can save them. Or us.

Lisa Katz is a poet and translator who has lived in Jerusalem since 1983. “Late Beauty,” her translations (with Shahar Bram) of the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner, will be published in the U.S. early next year by Zephyr Press.

Yanai Yechieli