The Weird and Wonderful Jerusalem of the Avram Cohen Mystery Series

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Jerusalem's Old City, October 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

Many writers have set novels in Jerusalem – like Paris, it’s the sort of place that demands artistic and literary homage. Most have dealt with the city as the locus of religions, wars and historical events over the millennia. But Robert Rosenberg was one of the very few who managed to plumb the depths of the city’s weirdness and exposed the irrationality, delusions, phobias and absurdities that stalk the streets of the Holy City.

Although Jerusalem is the setting of Rosenberg’s Detective Avram Cohen Mystery series, it is only one layer in the tangled and congested inner world of the eponymous ex-cop, who simply can’t help stumbling over dead bodies.

Cohen’s life is a compendium of Jewish tragedies and neuroses, ranging from Dachau and a stint with the nokmim (Jews who hunted down Nazis after World War II) to religion-addled tourists, fanatical West Bank settlers, and all the different kinds of zealots for which Jerusalem is a magnet.

Rosenberg, who spent his formative years in Boston, was a poet, writer, blogger (long before it was cool) and Haaretz journalist. He wrote four novels in the mystery series before dying of cancer a decade ago, at 54.

Rosenberg introduced Avram Cohen in “Crimes of the City” (1991), in which the murder of two nuns at the Russian Orthodox convent in Ein Karem threatens ties with what was at the time the Soviet Union.

The New York Times book reviewer described it as “a superior thriller, very well written, sensitively and beautifully plotted.”

In “The Cutting Room (1993), Cohen took his detective skills to Hollywood to solve the murder of a film director friend of his. “House of Guilt,” meanwhile, written in 1996, takes him into the netherworlds of both Tel Aviv and West Bank settler society, in search of the missing heir of a British-Jewish banking family.

The last book in the Avram Cohen series was “An Accidental Murder” (1999), in which Cohen himself becomes the target of an assassin due to something he wrote in his memoirs.

The book’s descriptions of Israel’s vodka-fueled Russian Mafia and the prostitution they control was one of the first literary exposés of what was at the time a very new phenomenon.

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