Saturday, November 24, 2012


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a novel by Michael Chabon that takes place in an alternate history. Nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and winner of a Hugo Award, the novel postulates that during WWII, Alaska was set aside as a place for Jewish refugees. As a result, only two million Jews died in the Holocaust, Hitler defeated Russia, Berlin was destroyed by a nuclear bomb, and John F. Kennedy married Marilyn Monroe.

But the Jews’ time in Alaska is up, and the territory is set to revert to the United States’ control. In the chaos of the reversion, a dead Jew is found in a hotel room, a bullet in his head. This looks like a job for Detective What’s-His-Name (I can’t remember), a typical hardboiled detective who’s an alcoholic, has daddy issues, a bad love life, and all the world’s bad luck. In other words, a charming fellow.

Let me clear: I didn’t hate this book. But I didn’t particularly like it, either. For that matter, I can’t remember much of it at all. It’s a remarkably unremarkable book. There are some interesting scenes that stand out, but I honestly already have forgotten most of the plot, although I know there’s something about a gay Messiah in there, as well as the typical stuff about the government being evil and Christians in particular being the spawns of Satan. At least, that’s what their horrific actions in the book imply.

I do know that this book fails as a detective story. I really can’t believe how incompetent everybody in this book was. The central clue is sitting in front of them the whole time, and only when there are 30 pages left in the book does it strike someone as odd that the killer practically left his calling card at the scene. Worse, the existence of this clue is hidden from the reader all this time. This was probably because the author feared that readers would feel their intelligence was being insulted with this clue. Quite simply put, Michael Chabon doesn’t care about ingenuity, which is such a staple of the detective fiction genre.

Instead, Chabon is being literary. This means the government is evil, one of the villains is named Cashdollar (subtle), and the book is written in the present tense, switching to the past tense so often that I felt genuinely confused by the entire novel. The novel keeps asking questions about Jewish identity, but frankly, with dull characters and even duller story, I couldn’t care less about these questions and was just eager to finish, since this book had to be read for a class.

To be perfectly fair, I can at least say that Chabon doesn’t show disdain for the genre. In fact, after the book itself there was an interview with Chabon where he professed admiration for the work of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and this seems genuine enough. But just because you admire detective fiction doesn’t mean you can write it, and Chabon just didn’t do a good enough job for me to recommend this book.

I don’t think he’ll lose any sleep over it, though. Chabon is a critical darling and a massive success. This novel reads like a love letter to the Literati, begging them to read through this mystery because there is something literary about it if they’ll just read it. Quite frankly, I’ve had enough. The Literati can leave the sandbox and go home instead of constantly mucking up my favourite genre.

But really, it isn’t a bad book at all, and there are a few standout moments that were quite fun to read. But as a whole, the book fails. It’s already gone to the part of my brain that’s a primordial soup of plot elements. It doesn’t really contribute anything memorable for me, but this isn’t a disgustingly bad book like some others I’ve read. It is just unremarkable, which in some ways is even worse than a bad novel. If you like Chabon already, you might enjoy this one, but as a newcomer I must say I was underwhelmed.


  1. Must admit, while I love Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER & KLAY (and would recommend it unreservedly) I had a deep suspicion that this might not be very successful - he barely managed to sustain the plot of the Holmesian pastiche THE FINAL SOLUTION, which was only a novella. His interests lie elsewhere and the counterfactual history approach is just really hard to pull off. In my view Len Deighton's SS-GB and Philip k. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE are the only ones I've read that really work.

    1. You know, everyone I know who has read Chabon has told me that CAVALIER & KLAY is brilliant. This one at the very least isn't God-awful, and there *are* some good moments, but I'm afraid I just can't recommend it.

      I haven't read too much of alternate histories. I've read more of the sci-fi "in the dystopian future" stories.