Michael Chabon somehow manages to write a novel which both science fiction and a hardboiled detective story, set in an alternative universe. If that wasn't complex enough and a seemingly sure recipe for disaster, somehow it actually turns out to be a good book.
The alternative world shows that Sitka, Alaska was created as a refugee haven for the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. It has become a Jewish metropolis populated by the European Jews who were being persecuted in the 1940’s. The story takes place sixty years after the initial land grant, when America is due to reclaim Sitka so, leaving the two million people who inhabit it with an uncertain fate. The rest of the alternative world is not described in detail but a major point is that the state of Israel does not exist, having been destroyed in the Arab-Israeli war. Never for a moment do you question the creation of this world as anything but real, which is a testament to Chabon’s creative and descriptive powers.
The hero is Meyer Landsman, who has several of the hardboiled detective trademarks. He is an alcoholic, with a failed marriage. He is, of course, a pessimist who lacks faith in God and people. And in the classic noir style the books opens with the murder and the lead character on the first page.
Meyer’s investigation into the death of Emanuel Lasker, who lived in the same rundown hotel he did, will lead him into a complex mystery involving several of the different sects of Sitka. It will cause him to examine his relationship with his ex-wife, now ironically his supervisor as work. Other existential issues arise out of the detective work and threaten to envelop him in despair.
Despite being a detective novel there are several moments of comic relief. They don’t always come off but there are some excellent jokes thrown in.
The book is steeped in Jewish culture and makes several plays on the Yiddish language, which are thankfully explained in a glossary for non-Yiddish speaker. The extent of which the book deals with life in the Jewish metropolis of Sitka means that some aspects will be lost on those who do not have anything more than a passing understanding of Jewish culture. This does not take away from the actual plot of the novel itself though, although it does make the settings or motives occasionally difficult to comprehend.
The actual conclusion to the mystery involves a large and complex denouement which seems more suited for a conspiracy theorist than a detective novel. Somehow the United States government, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and Evangelists are involved. It is quickly concluded and seems in no way plausible. The lead up to this point however is excellent. The entire description of the detective process and Landsman’s work to figure out the case is suspenseful and enthrallingly described.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a good book but there are flaws. The book may be a tribute to the hardboiled detective novel but it occasionally overdoes it with the clichés. The rapid closure of the story seems rushed instead of natural and the state of Landsman’s relationships at the end is somewhat predictable. But these are minor flaws in the greater context of the book. The immersion into alternative reality is subdued and gradual, a refreshing contrast from the shock effect that usually happens. The detective work is well written and Meyer Landsman is a character comparable with the private eyes of Dashiell Hamett and Raymond Chandler. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read although perhaps not destined to be a classic.