THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION
by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective in the District of Sitka, the closest thing that exists in the 2007 of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union to the State of Israel. Located in the panhandle of Alaska, Sitka has been a Jewish reservation for sixty years, and is about to revert to the United States and the neighboring Tlingit Indians. With nowhere to go once Reversion occurs and the Jews are once again exiled, an ennui has gripped much of the community, not least Landsman.
In many ways, Landsman is a archetypical noir detective. In his past is a failed marriage to Bina Gelbfish, in his present is a cheap dive of an apartment and a seemingly endless supply of cheap alcohol and cheaper cigarettes. Although Landsman works for the Sitka Police Department, he is only five weeks from unemployment when the department will be disbanded upon Reversion. Landsman's apartment is in the same building as Emanuel Lasker's an enigmatic John Doe who has taken an alias from the chess champion, and has been found dead.
Naturally, Landsman attempts to solve Lasker's murder, despite official notice that he is simply to ignore that case and close as many of his other outstanding cases as possible in the limited amount of time before the District reverts. As with all good detectives, Landsman ignores his orders and tries to discover who Lasker really is and why someone would want the young heroin addict killed.
Chabon builds a rambling police procedural, with plenty of red herrings as Landsman searches for Lasker's identity and murderer, occasionally bringing the investigation a little closer to home for Landsman than the detective would like. Where the novel really shines, however, is the setting Chabon has created for his mystery.
The focus of The Yiddish Policeman's Union is the underside of the Jewish population of the District of Sitka. Founded in the 1940s, the District seems to have drawn a large percentage of its population, whether secular or religious, from the Jews who had a hand in running organized crime. This is the place that would have attracted the likes of Meyer Lansky and Ben Siegel. This leads to Landsman's journey through a world of barely concealed corruption as he finds himself investigating mobsters who honestly believe that they are working to make the world a better place.
The novel is sprinkled with Yiddishisms, which are clever and will add a flavor of a Jewish Sitka for the reader who is not familiar with Yiddish. For readers with an understanding of Yiddish, the terminology is often humorous and revealing, but the knowledge of the words' literal meaning is not necessary for understanding or enjoyment of the novel.
In the end, The Yiddish Policeman's Union is something of a let down. Although Landsman manages to wrap up the crime involving Lasker neatly, he also uncovers much larger issues which are only beginning to be played out on the world stage when the novel comes to an end. Even as Chabon wraps up the main part of his story, he leaves the reader wanting more of the results of his character's actions, not, perhaps, on the micro level, but on the macro level. While this could be pointing toward a sequel, it provides The Yiddish Policeman's Union with an unfinished feel.
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