Why has nobody turned this into a movie yet? Seriously.
(Apparently the Coens were supposed to it! But didn’t. Alas…)
On its face, this is a hard-boiled detective novel set in an alternative history where Israel is essentially in Alaska instead of Palestine. I say “on its face” because this isn’t your typical hard-boiled detective. In fact, you might view him as a bit of a comment on the hard-boiled detective, both in his behaviour and his relationships to his family and those around him. Anyway…
The book is well told – it’s a real page-turner, especially as I got near the end, I had trouble putting it down. It’s been a while since I read a mystery I cared this much about. Now, much of that has to do with not reading mysteries very often, but still, it’s nice to read a page-turner.
It’s also nice to be enmeshed in an alternative history – Chabon does an excellent job with his alternate version of the 20th century, with some really neat little changes. My favourite is that Orson Welles actually made Heart of Darkness. Much of this is pretty subtle, which I appreciate. And the world he has created feels quite real, at least for someone who doesn’t know anything about Jewish life. The details about the weather are well-rendered too. I particularly like how the Jews thought there would be polar bears. Speaking as a Canadian, I can tell you we deal with this kind of misunderstanding of our weather all the time. And it wouldn’t shock me that the people of panhandle are dealing with it constantly.
Okay, here’s where the SPOILERS come in. (I’m trying to make them slight.)
I really like how he subverts the conventions of the novel genre (and film noir). In hard-boiled detective novels and in film noir, our hero is able to mostly succeed in spite of his flaws (or he fails utterly, but that is arguably its own subgenre). If he doesn’t succeed entirely, he is able to at least deal a fatal blow to the antagonist. But not here, at least not entirely. Landsman compromises and those around him, who he loves, compromise. They all compromise so much they are left eventually with one choice, a choice that the Landsman of the early chapters would be entirely unhappy with. This feels so much closer to how real life would function, if an alcoholic detective actually stumbled upon a far-flung conspiracy to start a war. In most of these stories, that character succeeds against the odds. Not here, and it’s very refreshing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good detective story. It’s also made me want to go back and re-read Kavalier & Clay because I feel like I gave that really short shrift.