In 1938 a proposal was put to
Roosevelt that part of Alaska should be offered as a
safe haven to Jews fleeing the Nazis, but the
proposal was quashed (see sidebar). Chabon's
genre-melding alternate history-police procedural is
set in a present in which the Alaskan proposal was
resurrected in 1948 following the collapse of the
fledgling State of Israel. Sixty years later, the
Federal District of Sitka is a thriving community of
more than 2 million Jews living on the Alaskan
panhandle (map), but they're about to find
themselves homeless again, as the land was only
leased as a temporary safe haven, and when the lease
ends in two months the land will revert back to
Meyer Landsman is a weary, hard-drinking homicide detective working for the Federal District of Sitka. His marriage has collapsed, he's living in a seedy hotel and, to add insult to injury, his former wife is his new supervisor. When a drug-addict named Lasker washes up dead in the hotel, Meyer sees an opportunity to redeem himself, but he and his half-Tlingit partner and childhood friend, Berko, soon discover that there's more to the death than first meets the eye. For starters, Lasker isn't Lasker, he's Mendel Shpilman, a former child prodigy who some thought was the Messiah, until he disappeared two decades ago on his wedding day.
How did this genius son of a Rabbi with connections to the criminal underworld end up a drug addict in a cheap hotel, and why was he murdered? These are the questions that Landsman is determined to answer, and he has only two months in which to do so before Sitka reverts to Alaskan authority and he loses his job and home.
Just as Landsman starts to make progress, he is warned off the case and, when he refuses to drop it, stripped of his rank (requiring him to flash the only other piece of ID he possesses, his membership card for the Yiddish Policemen's Union). Like many of the best fictional detectives before him, being outranked and ordered to stand down just makes him more determined to solve the crime - and so he does, but what he uncovers encompass a much wider territory than the chilly region of Sitka, requiring Meyer to weigh the fate of nations against a promise made to a grieving mother.
Chabon effortlessly leaps themes and genres in a tightly written novel in which gangsters, extremists and conspiracies jostle for space. The Yiddish Policemen's Union can be read as a well written noir-thriller, or as a powerful piece of political writing with themes and world events mirroring those of our own timeline, or both!
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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