Books: Life Is a Mystery

Arts & Books

Books: Life Is a Mystery

Zelda Shluker

There is a healthy new crop of Jewish crime/thriller/mystery books by both newcomers and recognized authors, who have proven they can give us a great literary ride. The diversity of venues is also notable; stories are set in the United States and Israel as well as in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, France, Norway and the United Kingdom. While most protagonist heroes may still be men, there are also women—both young and old—who are showing their sleuthing smarts.

The English Girl: A Novel by Daniel Silva. (Harper, 480 pp. $27.99)

What is a book binge without Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, Israel’s—and in this book, England’s go-to guy for fixing impossible situations. In The English Girl, Jewish concerns are not at risk, but Gabriel is called on to use his Israeli wherewithal to help an English counterpart rescue an English woman taken hostage on Corsica.

I am sure that one of the things Israel-lovers appreciate in this series (even when it isn’t about Israel per se) is that the author always gives background—the kind that is lacking in newspaper articles about Israel. Silva always recollects how the state came to be, its wars, the murders of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; there are also reminders of Gabriel’s other adventures, personal tragedies and his father-son relationship with former Mossad head Ari Shamron.

The English girl in question is Madeline Hart, an up-and-coming government worker who is taken hostage in Corsica. The English prime minister, who had an affair with her, is being blackmailed—he has seven days to pay or she will be killed.

While locals are doing the kidnapping, kidnapping is part of a larger plot—stretching all the way to Russia and its desire to recapture global supremacy through oil. The Russian oil company, which is tied to the government, wants oil rights off the coast of England and will go to any lengths to get them. The signs point to foul play, and Gabriel must put one of his team in a sensitive position to get the truth. As always in a Daniel Silva story, the initial plan (find Paul, the man who took the girl) is only prelude to a second plan that is necessary to fulfill promises made.

Silva reintroduces a couple of colorful characters: the mob boss of Corsica, without whose consent and help Gabriel cannot function on Corsica, and a defector from the British Army, who once tried to kill Gabriel, becomes his comrade in arms and backup.

The latest Gabriel Allon thriller is a terrifically satisfying summer read.

Adele, The Rabbi's Mother: A Novel by Anna King (Three Kings Books, 356 pp. $12.99, paper)

Meet Adele, the rabbi’s mother, who at age 75 is unlike any other rabbi’s mother you’ve ever met. Author Anna King (pseudonym for author Josephine Carr) has created quite a character, a self-centered, sophisticated woman who enjoys good food, nice clothing and, yes, sex.

But her world changes when she discovers she has one more attribute—she is psychic. It is that ability that shows her that 17-year-old Sol, a member of her son Benjy’s Orthodox congregation in New York City is in trouble. Aside from the usual adolescent woes and desires, an assault has sent his beautiful mother into a coma and she is lying unresponsive in the ICU.

Sol is determined to do what the police don’t seem able to: Find the perpetrator. And Adele, against the demands of her son, Benjy, who has his own congregational tsuris, is determined to assist Sol. Along the way, we meet an assortment of congregants and Adele’s new friend (who supplies a romantic interlude).

Adele defies expectations. She is a woman of many talents and someone it would be fun to visit with again when the second installment appears.

A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. (Bitter Lemon Press, 380 pp. $14.95)

This is Zygmunt Mitoszewski’s second crime story featuring Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. The intense, white-haired Szacki, now divorced, has moved from Warsaw to Sandomierz to start a new life in the town along the Vistula River.

He is immediately confronted with a bizarre murder, a woman whose mutilated body is found outside a synagogue. New to the town’s history and characters, an aging, old-time policeman who is a Jew (the only one in the book) fills him in on the town’s history and politics and what happened to its Jews. When the murder weapon is determined to be a chalef—a knife ritually used by Jews to slaughter animals, Szacki thinks, “So in a churchy city with an anti-Semitic past he was supposed to conduct an inquiry into a case involving the murder of a well-known social benefactress, who had been ritually slaughtered like a cow in a Jewish abattoir.”

The police fear that the ritual murder accusation will cause hysteria in the city, which was once “the capital of the universe for the idea of ritual murder.” Yet how likely is it that Jews will be harmed when “There aren’t any Jews…there’s no one to accuse, or to set on fire.” Still, could this have been a revenge killing by Jews for a much earlier offense?

This richly narrated book is written by a master mystery author.

The Bones and the Book by Jane Isenberg. (Oconee Spirit Press, 247 pp. $14.95 paper)

Two stories are connected in a tale that pieces together an ancient mystery. Rachel Mazursky was a stay-at-home mom until her husband, an insurance salesman, was killed during an earthquake in Seattle in April 1965. When shiva ends, a new life unexpectedly opens up: A group of high school students have found a leather bag that contains bones and a Yiddish diary in the streets they were clearing beneath Pioneer Square. The book, which dates to the 1880s, is given to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, where the bones will be studied. Rachel immediately volunteers to translate the book that might identify the bones: “When I turned the page and saw the Yiddish script, my heart was home,” she says.

Before long she is caught up in the “spirited voice” of Aliza Rudinsk, a young immigrant woman from the Ukraine. A seamstress, when a friend’s daughter drowned, Aliza takes her place, using her visa and changing her name to Feigele Lindner so she could get to New York. There she would live with family friends and find work as a seamstress, and make money to bring over her parents and little brother.

The chapters alternate between Rachel’s story and Aliza’s; when the professor determines that the bones show that she was murdered by a blow to the head, Rachel is more determined than ever to find out what went wrong in the young immigrant’s life. And you will be, too.

Death in Breslau: An Eberhard Mock Investigation by Marek Krajewski. Translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok. (Melville International Crime, 256 pp, $24.95)

It is Breslau 1933 and Criminal Inspector Eberhard Mock is called in to investigate the rape and murders of two young women found on a Breslau-Berlin train, scorpions writhing on their bodies and an indecipherable note in an apparently oriental language nearby.

The Gestapo is in charge and their spies are everywhere. Mock, a freemason, is not a friend of the Nazis, but he is a man with (erotic) vices and an instinct for self-preservation. He knew one of the victims, a baron’s daughter, since she was a child. When pressed by the Gestapo and tempted by the promise of advancement, he used the coerced confession of a Jewish man to close the case.

But then a wayward alcoholic detective is transferred from Berlin to Breslau and instructed to uncover the truth of the girls’ murders. Working together, they descend into the city’s dark underground and the case gets darker with a hint of the occult: A mysterious note seems to indicate a ritual killing with roots in the Crusades.

This evocative period crime story of sex, corruption and terror is skillfully written and is definitely not for the squeamish.

Mission to Paris: A Novel by Alan Furst (Random House, 255 pp. $27)

World War II has begun but the Americans have not yet been drawn into it. So when dashing American movie star Frederic Stahl comes to Paris in the summer of 1938 to make a film, the Germans want to use him for their propaganda purposes. For his part, the cool, suave actor cannot condone the Nazi treatment of Jews and others and becomes part of a spy network, being in the hub of roiling changes, before Germany marched into France. The Jewish characters are integral to the story; as historical changes take place, they are sorely affected.

Murder in Prague: An Inspector Mazal Mystery by Aviezer Tucker. (CreateSpace, 270 pp. $11.99 paper)

Josef Schulhof, a respected member of the Prague Jewish community, owns an antiquarian bookstore next to the famed Old-New Synagogue. When he is found dead outside his building, the police want to know whether he jumped or was pushed from his window. Was there a burglary? Anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of his apartment point to a hate crime.

Jan Mazal (he is Jewish on his father’s side), the lead inspector in the case, is warned at the outset by his commander that any hint of anti-Semitism in the case would set off international repercussions and, possibly, copycat crimes.

Mazal’s investigations look at Schulhoff’s real estate investments, which he handled for the Jewish community, and his own purchase of an unpublished novel purportedly by Kafka.

The story takes the reader from Prague to New York (to authenticate his purchase) and back. Did Schulhoff buy fool’s gold with money from unsavory lenders? Along the way, there is a lot of history (Holocaust and post-Communist), insight into Jewish life and sly reflections on contemporary Jewish and European conditions. There is an assist to the conclusion by the Israelis, whose eyes on the world of terror prove to be an all-seeing asset.

Aviezer Tucker, who usually writes academic books—on philosophy, history, politics, science and technology studies and energy and their interdisciplinary interactions—has invested a lot of intelligence and humor in this fictional tale.

Farthing by Jo Walton (Tor, 320 pp. $14.99 paper)

If you didn’t read this excellent, frightening and crisply written mystery when it was published in 2006, read it now in paperback. Eight years after World War II, England and the Allies have fought Hitler to a standstill and made peace with him. Charles Lindbergh is the American president, where Jews are not permitted entry, and the world is either in the throes of, or tilting toward, fascism.

The man who was the architect of peace with Hitler’s Germany is found dead at Farthing House, a country estate in Hampshire where the well connected and powerful congregate. The only outsider in attendance during this particular weekend is the Jewish David Kahn, who is married to the estate owners’ daughter, Lucy (Everslee).

While Hitler rules the continent and anti-Semitism (and concentration camps) is in full force there, England’s anti-Jewish biases have tainted its society. When James Thirkie (a Jew hater) is found dead, a yellow star stabbed into his chest, suspicion centers on David. Why was he invited? To be a scapegoat and to make a murderous example that will support the vote for harsher laws restricting Jewish life and presence in the United Kingdom?

The story, which includes a second murder, is told in two rational voices: Lucy’s and Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael, who eventually uncovers the truth. Still, in this frightening scenario, there is no happily-ever-after.

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen. (Permanent Press, 288 pp. $29)

Henri Poincare, a young French engineer, has designed a platform that will be used to explore the sea where a 300-year-old ship went down with great treasure. In the course of his stay in Germany, he becomes acquainted with the beautiful Liesel Kraus and her charming brother Anselm Kraus; he runs the family company, Kraus Steel, while she sets up educational and medical programs to help locals wherever the company locates.

His good opinion of the two turns into a quandary when Henri visits a Kraus Steel site in Hong Kong, where an old ship is being broken down into reusable steel. He finds the workers are exploited and treated like slaves and must now rethink a business proposal from Anselm to break down old computers to salvage copper, gold and silver.

Meanwhile, an Interpol agent is following Henri, collecting damning evidence on Anselm to indict him for his company’s criminal behavior.

Searching a central archive, Henri finds that Kraus Steel’s owner directed slave workers in a work camp. The file also brings up a question: Why did 10 Jews vouch for Kraus after the war? When Henri tries to locate each of them—they include people who knew Isaac Kahane, a close friend of Henri’s who recently died and about whom Henri is determined to learn more—he discovers that they are all newly deceased.

The story is rounded out with other old Nazis, a cozy Nazi sanctuary in Buenos Aires as well as the clues Henri follows to learn that those on the list of 10 are being killed.

I expect The Tenth Witness, which is appearing in September, will be followed by a second about Henri Poincare, since by the story’s end, Henri has so enjoyed the challenge of unraveling the mystery that he intends to give up his growing engineering business to work as an investigator.

The Geneva Option: A Yael Azoulay Novel by Adam LeBor. (A Bourbon Street Books, 368 pp. $14.99)

With The Geneva Option, Adam LeBor, a respected British journalist and author of nonfiction Hitler’s Secret Banker, City of Oranges and Complicity with Evil, has taken another foray into the world of fiction.

He has introduced us to Yael Azoulay, an Israeli-born representative to the United Nations’ secretary general, with a reputation as a tough negotiator. After one of her mission’s is exposed on the front page of The New York Times she is fired and accused of espionage and betrayal. Going undercover to clear her name, she discovers a chilling plot in which the UN is colluding with a German company, an American congressman and a French official to take control of a rich area of the Congo, to incite a local ethnic war as a pretense for inserting itself and using independent militia run by Israelis.

Even though Yael is Israeli-born there are only two ways in which that informs her character: Her lethal fighting skills are built on the foundation of Krav Maga, honed by the Israel Defense Forces. And when she was in distress, her visualizations are of a Tel Aviv beach, with a calming view of sky, water and sand. Otherwise, she is a female Jason Bourne.

It is a chilling story of hypocrisy and double-dealing power-broking: The UN, whose premise is so idealistic, working for the betterment of the people of the world, viewed with suspicion and disappointment. LeBor writes with the assurance of someone who knows the UN’s inner workings, making this fictional account quite scary.

The Crooked Maid: A Novel by Dan Vyleta. (Bloomsbury USA, 448 pp. $26)

It is post-World War II Vienna and this elegant plot, described by some critics as Dostoyevskian, brings two characters back to the city, which has changed drastically since they left. One is Anna Beer, who is expecting to meet her psychiatrist husband, Anton, from whom she separated before he went into the army because he had a homosexual affair, and perhaps reconcile with him. He was a Russian POW.

The second returnee is a naïve 18-year-old boy, Robert Seidel, who has spent half his life in boarding school in Switzerland. The two meet on the train and part, she to the mystery of a corroded, hard-to-identify body that may or may not be her husband; he to the death of his stepfather, whose fall off a balcony may have been accidental or the result of a deliberate push by Robert’s stepbrother, Wolfgang, once a brutal investigator for the Nazis,who is on trial for his father’s death. His guilt or innocence will hang on the testimony of the last witness—the crooked maid.

In this story, the Jews have been erased, exterminated or exiled. Yet they are still present (as are the Nazis). The stepfather’s business partner was Jewish and the house Robert’s family lives in belonged to the Jews. Has he returned to take it all back?

Honest Deceptions: A Novel by Hannah S. Hess. (Caravel Books, 284 pp. $18.95)

Twenty-five-year-old Margot Brenner, with her new medical degree in hand, decides to spend her two-year internship in surgery in a hospital in a German city (it is 1965 and in America, she is only offered internships in pediatrics). This will accomplish two of her goals: It will give her the surgical education and experience she desires and allow her to research what happened to her father and brother during the war.

Many years ago, her mother had been able to leave Germany with her infant daughter, but her father remained behind with Margot’s sick brother. By the time he recovered, they could no longer get a visa. Though many years have passed, she is hoping that her father’s good friend in Germany—a kind, loyal doctor who took him into his medical practice when he was forbidden to work in his own and who was even arrested for sheltering her family—will help her find out who betrayed him.

Hannah Hess, who was born in Germany, writes that the Germans possess three attitudes: those who despised Hitler, those who went along and later developed amnesia and those who are still anti-Semites but no longer show it because it is politically incorrect. In raising moral issues, Hess has also devised a plot worthy of a Sophie’s Choice.

Confluence: A Gidon Aronson Thriller by Stephen J. Gordon. (Apprentice House, 374 pp. $19.95)

The triggering event in the second Gidon Aronson thriller is a home invasion with apparent intent to kill a congregational rabbi, his wife and two children. Enter Gidon (ex-IDF, ex-Mossad), who was invited to enjoy a pleasant Friday night dinner and ends up rescuing the family and killing the criminals. He substitute teaches at the Hebrew Academy in Baltimore and runs a dojo, teaching tai chi.

Mystery: Why would someone want to kidnap or harm the rabbi, Josh, who must now enter protective custody with his family? Aside from his congregational work, Josh travels to Europe to find and fix Torahs that are then given (without charge) to congregations that need one. Could his for-profit competitor be involved?

Then the deaths pile up, first in another congregation, then a board member in Josh’s synagogue. Then Gidon kills two invaders at his dojo—and one of them has a Gaza phone number in his pocket. The sleuthing continues in Israel after the rabbi and his family flee there for safety.

The solution to the crimes is not the usual suspect, which should be intriguing yet falls a little flat. The puzzle has unanswered questions—but maybe that is the way of real life.

Norwegian by Night: A Novel By Derek B. Miller. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 290 pp. $26)

Derek Miller is a welcome new voice and his central character is an opinionated yet delightful senior citizen. American Sheldon “Donny” Horowitz is 82 and living in Norway with Rea, the granddaughter he raised after his son’s death in Vietnam. He is cranky and complex: His entire life he has hidden the acts of heroism he performed during the Korean War and carries with him the guilt for urging his son to follow his path into the army.

The Jewish experience in this novel is both background and an underlying character. Donny exemplifies the American Jew who fights for his country to show gratitude to the United States for the security and opportunities it has afforded his people. For their part, Norwegians know little about Jews; and the country had never apologized to the Jewish community for their roundup during Nazi occupation.

In other ways, however, Rea’s Norwegian husband, Sigried, is a cool character who does the right thing, though he seems at a loss to understand the Jewish emotions roiling around Donny.

Donny’s angst shifts when domestic fighting in the apartment above him—literally a fallout from the Balkan war—spills over into his life. He gives the terrorized woman and her son sanctuary from the man she lives with. Determined to save her son, she thrusts him at Donny and leaves to deter the man, who murders her. To protect the child, the aged veteran flees with him, ingeniously keeping him safe as he travels by whatever means he can (including a stolen boat and a tractor) to his granddaughter’s mountain cabin.

I hope the author will keep Donny around long enough to give us another book.

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A Talk with Ari Shavit - By Stewart Kampel

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Exhibit: Saving the Past - By Barbara Trainin Blank

Book Review: A Ride With Nicholas Sparks - By Zelda Shluker

Exhibit Review: Graphic Life - By Sara Trapper Spielman

The Many Sides of Peter Max - By Zelda Shluker

The Arts: United (Jewish) Artists - By Aaron Rosen

Brief Reviews: Beauty, Brutality and the Blues

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